Monday, September 20, 2010

Kol Nidre: A Postmortem

Confession: As a proud Ashkenazi and litvak to boot I take great pride in my heritage. However, over the years I have developed an appreciation for Sephardim for many reasons: They tend to have a healthier approach to religious practice with a keen sense of balance between ritual observance and modern living. For example, it isn’t unusual to see Sephardi young adults attending Shabbat services with their fathers, returning to their parent’s home for Kiddush and chamin, but extricating themselves in appropriate fashion so as to catch the soccer game. Sephardi rabbis who haven’t been brainwashed and programmed by Ashkenazi yeshivot are also much more tolerant and understanding of the secular community. In addition to the sublime of which I speak there is also the down and dirty reason for admiring Sephardim. They have a better genetic disposition: fantastic teeth, great hair, and much better physiques (men and women alike). It was for these reasons that we decided this year to attend Kol Nidre services at a local and well-established Sephardi congregation. And I couldn’t wait.

It was a lapse in judgment I told myself, as the service began. We arrived at the designated time, and fully prepared for a few preliminaries before beginning Kol Nidre. As the service progressed I realized that something was dreadfully wrong. It seemed as though it was Tisha B’Av. They chanted very, very, very slowly a four-page piyut lasting for a full forty-five minutes to a tune sounding like a funeral dirge with a Middle Eastern nasal affect, monotone with no variation in pitch or tune. It sounded like a broken record that never ended. By the time Kol Nidre was intoned (it was way past the traditional time of chanting Kol Nidre which is before sundown), it was night and I was exhausted. There was also mayhem regarding the removal of the Torah scrolls from the ark. All eight of their Torah’s were removed by men, tripping over themselves, who then stood around the Bima, as though they were getting ready for Hakafot of Simchat Torah. Traditionally, in Ashkenazi synagogues two scrolls are held at the Bima, on the left and right of the cantor. At this shul, while the eight scrolls were at the Bima in the center of the shul, the cantor was up at the Ark, praying into an empty, dark space. I wasn’t sure where to focus: on the Bima where the eight scrolls were assembled, or on the cantor at the Ark. It all seemed so incongruous.

To add insult to injury, prior to the chanting of the Kol Nidre, which was an identical tune to the dirge chanted previously, there was a public auction of all the honors (i.e. opening the Ark, removal of the scrolls etc), which took thirty minutes but was absolutely inappropriate for such a holy day. How can anyone get into the proper mindset of Yom Kippur when moments prior to the chanting of one of the most historically significant, remarkable prayers in our liturgy, Kol Nidre, the shul took on the disturbing atmosphere of a market place? I assumed that the purpose of the four-page piyut chanted earlier was purposeful, in that it’s intention was to set the right mood and mindfulness for Kol Nidre and all that followed. After all, Yom Kippur comes but once a year; it’s our one shot at approaching our history, and our lives with the humility that most of us lack all year long. And then the auction begins: it was like being drenched by a bucket of ice water in the midst of a fantastic dream? A total shock to the system.

There it was. After the auction, a procession of Torah scrolls wrapped in tawdry metal painted in cheesy gold and silver trim, reminding me of holiday popcorn packaged in kitschy tins that vendors ply to their customers around Christmas and New Years. There he was in all his glory, the chazzan, in an open collared shirt, no kitel, chanting Kol Nidre to a dark, empty cavernous Ark, prompting me to wonder if the attendees of the Yeshiva Shel Maalah were experiencing the same ennui of mortals such as myself in the Yeshiva Shel Matah?