Hallel v’Zimra in Chicago

I was fortunate to be able to attend a conference titled “Hallel v’Zimra: Jewish Liturgical Music, Present + Future” in Chicago over the past few days organized by the Mordecai M. Kaplan Center for Jewish Peoplehood. It was in Hyde Park, a little neighborhood dominated by the University of Chicago, which hosted some of the programs along with two local synagogues, Rodfei Zedek and KAM Isaiah Israel (the latter of which is across the street from Obama’s Chicago house!).

The highlight of the conference was a concert which had so many of the leading synagogue musicians working today: great cantors like Alberto Mizrahi, Azi Schwartz, and Benjamin Warschawski; innovators like Joey Weisenberg, Yoel Sykes, Deborah Sachs Mintz, and Josh Warshawsky; and everyone in between. (Personal achievement unlocked: one of these artists gave me a CD when I was chatting with him after the concert, like I’m an influencer now!)

If I had to pick one thing, the conference was about answering the question: what’s the job that prayer actually does for us, anyway? (And by extension, what’s the job of a cantor?)

One theme that came up is the need to meet people where they are. (Not unlike what I talked about in my last blog post.) One speaker humorously noted that certain communities seem to want to be bored. That’s what’s comforting for them. My question is, if that’s what a community wants, why not give it to them? (I think there are probably reasons not to; it would be an interesting exercise to spell them out.)

Another theme is that of process vs. product, and that other “p” word, performance. Is the important part of this field all the work we do within the community to teach and give spiritual leadership (“process”) or just what we present on the bimah (“product”)? What’s the right balance between how we sound and how we feel? How do we inspire people not just when they’re hearing us, but into ongoing spiritual practice?

Is the cantor of the future just a specialization of rabbi? Or, as Cantor Matthew Austerklein suggested, is the rabbi the keeper of the oral tradition and the cantor the keeper of the written one? It’s counterintuitive that the cantorate is not about oral communication, but I feel that model resonates. What sort of cantorate is needed for the contemporary age (that is different from a few generations ago)?

What’s the job of prayer? Few non-Orthodox Jews today pray as fulfillment of an obligation. My teacher Rabbi Ebn Leader surmised that it’s hard for Jews to talk about God since the Enlightenment because we still associate it with being back in the ghetto. Rabbi Miriam Margles said that being human is hard. I tend to agree that prayer is our most time-tested technology for dealing with that–and any twentieth-century optimism that humans had solved the problem of life being hard, has faded away in the twenty-first.

The most interesting session I attended was about music therapy and the neuropsychology of music. Watch the video below to see, in an fMRI, your brain reacting in sync with music. Favorite melodies affect dopamine, even as they can be woven in new variants. Jewish nusach is a musical tradition that has figured this out already, organically. Liturgical music has the power to heal, and we already knew this. That’s certainly at least a big part of its job. It’s not a surprise that the evidence supports this.

The Tango Brain 2: Encephalic Aviation from Petri Toiviainen on Vimeo.

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