Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Catchy Tunes for the Yamim Naraim

I love Sholomo Carlebach’s music. I even enjoy the music composed by Mordechai Ben David and many of the other Jewish musical compositions. I listen to it all the time. I hum to it and even sing along with it in my car. But when it comes to adapting their melodies to the Yomim Noraim …well, let’s just say that I am not a fan of that.

In the last decade or two there has been a trend to incorporate various popular Jewish tunes into the body of Teffilos for Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur. These tunes most often include songs written by either the aforementioned Shlomo Carlebach or Mordechai Ben David.

In my view this music is a distraction. Using pop music no matter how melodious does not inspire Teshuva, at least not for me. Instead it inspires images of the performer who made those tunes popular.

The more time that has passed, the more this trend seems to have taken hold. And I think it is being way over done. I am not saying that this practice should be entirely eliminated. But as currently and increasingly being done, the Piyutim have become so vested with the tunes that they actually overwhelms the words. The intent of the Piyut is lost. And it has become more about the melody than about what the words mean.

I am a far bigger fan of the traditional Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur Chazanus melodies that were created specifically for the words that they are used for. Instead of detracting, they actually add to the meaning of the words.

Anyone who knows me will tell you that I am not generally a fan of Chazanus. In fact, I avoid it like the plague. But I think it is more because of the way it is executed by some of today’s Chazanim who are really quite bad. I doubt that it is because of anything intrinsically objectionable to it. I say this because I have heard an occasional good Chazan. The best one I ever heard is my own father who was a Chazan all of his life. He never did Carlebach… and certainly not MBD. His Davening was the most inspiring I have ever heard, by far. And I am not alone in thinking so. Wherever he ever ended up Davening for the Amud all the way until his death at age 87, he was a beloved figure and was always asked to return the following year... even after he retired from professional Chazanus.

His Melodies were either the traditional ones associated with the Yomim Noraim or family based Chazanic melodies going back many generations. He was a beloved Baal Teffila all of his life and with good reason. His Davening style combined with the melodies he used were far more heartfelt and moving than the Zmiros that pass for Chazanus today. When I hear an MBD tune used for a Piyut, I try and blot it out and think of my father's melody for it.

I Davened in one shul for over 25 years. It had a Chasidic bent and they kept increasing the tunes... mostly the MBD ones... until much of the Davening sounds almost like a clone of an MBD Rosh Hashanah - Yom Kippur album (V’Chol Maminim). I do not consider this inspiring at all. It is more of a concert... or an attempt at one. I say this realizing that the Baalei Teffila did not intend it that way. For the most part, they are sincere and they try to inspire with these melodies. But for me… it is too “pop-culture” style. And they do not inspire Teshuva.

The most egregious example of this is the way they end off Kaddish Shalem (Tiskabel) at the end of Musaf. They sing it to a Zmira. Cute little tune. But it has no relation to the solemnity of the day. And to make matters worse, the all important Yehei Shmeh Rabbah is all but obliterated by the tune.

This is one of the reasons I left that shul over 12 years ago. I now Daven at Yeshivas Brisk where the melodies are the traditional ones of the Yomim Noraim with only an occasional stray Carelbach Niggun or the like.

I doubt that I will ever be as inspired by a Baal Teffilah the way I was by my father. But at least now I don’t picture MBD with every other Piyut, anymore.