I know that I want to focus on settings of the liturgy over the next few months. Part of this is, to be honest, blatantly public: I want to write music that people will want to sing in their synagogues and camps. But part of it is also highly personal: although I can decode Hebrew and translate key words in the prayers, I am far from fluent in the language and I want to figure out how to relate to these prayers in ways that will help me to engage more fully with our tradition.
During my studies at Mifgash Musicale, I wondered repeatedly: how important is it that Jews pray in Hebrew? While it is the language of our Torah, it isn't necessarily the language of our ancestors, many of whom conversed in Aramaic, Greek, French and German -- Jews spoke, transacted business and even courted in the language of whatever dominant culture was in charge at the time. By the mid-eighteenth century, German Reform rabbis were giving sermons in German. The fact was, then as now, that few Jews really understand Hebrew well enough to derive much meaning from sacred texts written in that holy tongue.
Today it's really no different, at least in Jewish communities in most of the Diaspora. Here in the United States, Jews sing and pray in Hebrew, but they also sing and pray in English. Many of the newest songs in contemporary Jewish music incorporate both languages, or use English entirely. I wrote "I Stand Here/Hineni" entirely in English because, while I know what the cantor's Hineni on Erev Rosh Hashanah basically means, I'm not fluent enough in Hebrew to translate it word for word. And very few of the congregants who come to shul that evening will know what the text actually says; if their cantor sings the traditional Hebrew text, the average congregant will either glance at the translation provided or, if there is none, they will likely space out for a few moments while the cantor makes pretty music. (Don't believe me? Ask yourself what YOU do at that point in the High Holy Days service. Then ask your friends.)
I wanted to sing -- in private, at least, if not at shul -- a Hineni that really said something honest about how I would feel standing before the open ark at my first High Holy Days posting -- scared, anxious, worried that my small efforts would not make a difference for the community even though I poured my heart and soul into them. So I came up with English lyrics that echoed the basic meaning of the traditional Hebrew text while expressing it in a language almost anyone in an American synagogue could understand. It's not going to be used where I am working this fall, and that's okay; I wrote it primarily as a way for me to get over some of my fear and anxiety about whether my efforts would be "good enough" to matter. I think the song has helped me feel calmer about what I'm heading into in a little more than a month's time. And maybe someday I will use it in an Erev Rosh Hashanah service and it will be of use to someone else in the room. And that would be really okay.
Does translating Hebrew texts into vernacular musical settings dumb down the liturgy? Does it run the risk of destroying a tradition that is centuries or even millennia old? Will my decision to write English-language liturgcal settings help to bring about the demise of Jewish prayer?
I'm willing to bet that it won't.
Because in the end, in order to help Jews really engage with their tradition, we have to do what generations before us did: we need to educate and teach Hebrew for the future, and also make the prayers accessible in the vernacular for the here and now. It might be cool if every Jew in every synagogue could be fleunt enough in Hebrew to really daven everything in the holy tongue, but in reality that is never going to happen. So why not find ways to make the vernacular more sacred too?
My goal for the next year is to focus on writing new settings of liturgical texts that can be used in synagogue or camp and that can sung by almost anyone. If there's a text in the liturgy that speaks to you and that you want to invite me to think about in this context, I want you to write to me and tell me about it. Use the contact form here at my web site; it will go straight to my email. I can't promise I will write a setting on every text you suggest, but I will respond to all of your suggestions.
Summer is fleeting fast! In a little more than a month I will travel once again to the Kansas City area, to the synagogue that has become a second home to me, and I will immerse myself in the wisdom of Torah and wrest as much music and meaning from it as I can. Enjoy these last few weeks of summer and may they bring you a sense of exhalation, joy and peace.