Learning Trope

When Ronald Rosenblatt chants the haftarah for congregants at Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills, the 70-year-old West Los Angeles dentist feels a deep connection with his past.

His late father regularly stood up to sing the sacred text at the temple’s prayer services until his death about 10 years ago. And for ages before that, his Jewish ancestors chanted and listened to the holy words. Now, although he is not clergy, Rosenblatt helps to carry forward the tradition for both his family and community, and it makes him proud.

“It’s like I’m supposed to,” he said. “It’s been the most wonderful thing for me. For me it’s like my attachment to my father.”

It didn’t always seem possible. A decade ago, Rosenblatt couldn’t decipher the dots and lines — called trope — that guide the ritual chanting of scriptural passages, such as the haftarah, Torah and various megillot. But when the Reform synagogue’s Cantor Yonah Kliger announced he was offering a class in trope, Rosenblatt decided to take the plunge.

It was a transformative experience. Until that point, Rosenblatt had only learned to memorize a small portion of the haftarah as part of his bar mitzvah preparations years earlier. After studying with Kliger, Rosenblatt found he could chant any part of the text because he knew how to read trope, which is essentially ancient music notation.

“It’s just like a mystery solved,” he said.

For many Jews, learning trope may seem like a daunting task and one best suited to clergy. But by taking classes at a local synagogue — and with the help of books, online resources and plenty of practice — it’s possible for a layperson to learn the system within as little as a few weeks, some local teachers said. Several temples in the Los Angeles area offer trope classes for their adult congregants, ranging from group sessions to one-on-one tutoring. 

Trope readers can provide a valuable and needed service in their communities by chanting at temple services, according to Rabbi Cantor Alison Wissot of Temple Judea, a Reform congregation in Tarzana. They also will enhance their own understanding of Judaism and Jewish rituals, she said.

“There’s plenty of people I can hand a CD to and they can do a Torah portion,” Wissot said. “But they can’t do another. They have to come back to me, which means I am in the way of them being able to practice Judaism in the way they want to. … If they have the skill [of reading trope], they can do it for themselves.” 

Most often, laypeople start by learning Torah trope. Some teachers also provide instruction in haftarah and other kinds of trope, which uses the same symbols but slightly different melodies. 

Kliger, who tutors congregants at Temple Emanuel, recommends beginners start by learning the haftarah trope because the markings are written into the text. That’s not the case with the Torah scrolls, where the reader must memorize the cantillation, he explained.

However, Wissot says many people are already familiar with some chants from the Torah, making it a logical place for them to start. Ultimately, the type of trope students decide to learn will depend on their own goals and the needs of the temple, she said.

Kliger says the melodies constitute a very early form of Jewish music that evolved around the same time as Gregorian chants. Trope originally was passed down as an oral tradition communicated through a series of hand symbols. Around 900 C.E., a family from Tiberias, Israel, the Ben-Ashers, codified the symbols in written form.

Today, there are many different variations of trope, depending on the branch of Judaism, geographic and cultural influences, and the individual style of cantors and congregations. The symbols remain the same, however, Kliger said.

Trope has several functions. It indicates the melody of the text; how words are accented; and punctuation, such as pauses and stops between words and phrases. All of this can impact interpretation as well.

“The tropes bring the text to life in a really deeper and richer way. They bring meaning to the words, they accentuate the syntax, the grammar, the punctuation, the melody,” Kliger said. “It enhances everything for the student, and I want them to have that ability and the passion I have for it.”

As an example of how a text’s melody can potentially impact meaning, Wendy Lupul, a volunteer who teaches Torah trope at Temple Beth El of South Orange County, points to an example in Genesis when Potiphar’s wife tries to seduce Joseph. While the text simply states that Joseph refused, the way it is chanted opens up the possible interpretation that he hesitated before replying, she said.

Although trope signs may look very complicated at first glance, they can only be arranged in a finite number of patterns. Once one learns these melodic patterns — about 15 in all, depending on the style of trope — the system becomes easy to decipher, Wissot said. 

Lupul says she teaches the patterns by having students sing the names of the trope symbols themselves. Once they have mastered these patterns, they can apply them to the Hebrew text, she said.

Area teachers insist that students be able to read Hebrew before they start learning trope. It isn’t essential to understand the Hebrew, but correct pronunciation is a must, said Kliger.

At Valley Beth Shalom, a Conservative congregation in Encino, many adult learners participate in a Hebrew reading class before attempting to learn trope, said Program Director Elana Rimmon Zimmerman. The temple offers adult b’nai mitzvah classes that start every September and include trope instruction. Members interested solely in trope can also be paired with synagogue volunteers who provide free tutoring, she said.

People decide to learn trope for various reasons, Zimmerman continued. For some, it’s because their children are studying for b’nai mitzvah and they want to study chanting alongside them. Other people may see mastering trope as a way to deepen their understanding and devotion to Judaism.

Principally, though, learning trope provides a way for congregants to connect more deeply with their fellow worshipers and faith, several instructors said.

“What we find is people really want to participate. They want to be able to tap in and be a part of the service,” said Rabbi K’vod Wieder at Temple Beth El.  “To be able to chant Torah not only gives people a feeling of being linked to 3,000 years of tradition, but it also allows them to feel like they have more ownership of their tradition.”

Resources for Learning Trope

Jew of Arcadia


Becky Wahlstrom isn’t a Jew, but she plays one on TV. As Grace Polk on CBS’s “Joan of Arcadia,” the blond Chicagoan looks refreshingly unlike your stereotypical Jewish character. Of course, Grace’s character wasn’t supposed to seem Jewish from the start. The contrary, politically outspoken, rebellious teenager in black has been packed with surprises since her character debuted in last year’s first season. Recently, it came to light that her mother is an alcoholic. Toward the end of last year, it was revealed that her father was a rabbi and that, at age 16, she was finally giving in to his pleadings that she have a bat mitzvah. Tonight, then, is the big night. Grace will become a woman in the eyes of the Jewish community at 8 p.m. on Friday, Nov. 26.

“Joan of Arcadia,” is a one-hour teen/family drama, that centers around the titular Joan Girardi (Amber Tamblyn), an average teenage girl who just happens to hear from God on a regular basis. Although an ongoing plot point this season involves Joan’s mother (Mary Steenburgen) returning to Catholicism, the God on this show is supposed to be nondenominational, embracing people of all faiths.

Coinciding with the bat mitzvah storyline in this episode titled, “The Book of Questions,” is one in which Joan must cope with the death of a close friend, priming a discussion on one of the heaviest questions religion tackles: mortality. As the show rarely brings in the viewpoint of any one religion, it’s noteworthy that they chose a Jewish perspective to tackle such a weighty issue.

“I think the amalgamation of this rite of passage and Jewish theology had a certainly important part to play in [the characters] finding meaning and comfort,” said Cantor Chayim Frenkel of Kehillat Israel, who, in addition to teaching Wahlstrom how to chant her Torah reading for the episode, also served as a technical adviser and has a cameo appearance.

Grace and Joan’s inner conflicts in this episode made the idea of questions a logical theme, according to the episode’s writer, Ellie Herman. Grace’s conflict is that while part of her wishes to appease her parents by going through with the bat mitzvah, there’s another part that both fears her mother’s alcoholism will be revealed to the public and questions whether this ritual even holds any meaning for her. Meanwhile, Joan is grieving and angry with God for showing himself but refusing to give her any answers about why her friend had to die.

In Judaism, Herman noted, it’s all about questioning, and this is what Grace eventually realizes. She is handed the Torah, which Herman described as the true “book of questions.” Grace, a rebel with a mind of her own, realizes “she’s not being handed a bunch of answers. She’s being handed all the questions of life,” Herman said.

For Herman, a seasoned writer of shows like “Chicago Hope” and “Party of Five,” this subject matter was particularly close to her heart, having undergone an adult bat mitzvah herself two and a half years ago.

“It is an event that I feel is profound, one of people publicly claiming their spirituality,” Herman said.

The bat mitzvah service and reception scenes were filmed at North Hollywood’s Temple Adat Ari El. Wahlstrom also understood the importance of her role, and took seriously the particular challenge of chanting Torah. She worked with Frenkel for two to three weeks on learning the melody and words phonetically from a transliteration Frenkel wrote out for her.

“Everything I’ve learned for this episode had to be researched. I’d never been to a bat mitzvah and had never even been to a temple before,” Wahlstrom said. Frenkel also invited Wahlstrom to attend a bat mitzvah service at Kehillat Israel to help her prepare for the role.

She said that at least in one respect, it was easy for her to play the part of a rabbi’s daughter.

“I have one parent who is extremely religious, so it wasn’t uncomfortable for me to imagine one parent being extremely religious. It just happened to be Jewish instead of Catholic,” Wahlstrom said.

As for his student’s level of success, Frenkel proudly said. “She was amazing. She was like any of my great bat mitzvah kids at K.I.”

For more information about the show, visit

Community Briefs

Center Launches Appeal on 12Jews Missing in Iran

The Simon Wiesenthal Center is asking concerned peoplearound the world to join in a Passover appeal for 12 Jews missing in Iran, someup to 10 years.

Eleven of the men, ranging in age from 15 to 57 at the timeof their disappearances, were detained by Iranian authorities while trying tocross the border into Pakistan between 1994 and 1997. In addition, a Jewishbusinessman living in Tehran disappeared in 1997 while visiting a provincialcapital.

“The 12 Jews are believed to be alive, but their familieshave never heard from them and have been unable to get any information from thegovernment,” said Rabbi Abraham Cooper, associate dean of the Wiesenthal Center.”This is a humanitarian appeal, cutting across political lines.”

A Web site has been established that includes photos of nineof the missing men and a petition for assistance addressed to U.N. SecretaryGeneral Kofi Annan, Secretary of State Colin Powell, British Foreign SecretaryJack Straw and the Iranian U.N. representative, Dr. Mohammad Zarif.

For information and participation in the humanitariancampaign, go to www.wiesenthal.com/mailings_swc/swc_mar1604.htm. — Tom Tugend,Contributing Editor


Arab Americans Stage Protest atIsraeli Consulate

About 200 Arab American activists, students, parents andchildren converged for a three-hour protest March 27 in front of the ConsulateGeneral of Israel in Los Angeles, with small children chanting Palestinianslogans and speakers praising the assassinated Hamas terrorist leader, SheikhAhmad Yassin.

“We’re here to celebrate Sheikh Yassin’s life,” said anOakland-based Muslim cleric to the Wilshire Boulevard crowd. “We’re kindajealous. He’s a martyr. Sheikh Yassin gets a level of paradise that is [only]below the prophets. We got the truth, and that’s all we need.”

Israel’s targeted assassination of Yassin on March 22 fueledthe rally’s rage. One protester held up a wheelchair in honor of thewheelchair-bound terrorist leader, while the Muslim cleric described Hamas as,”our heroes — not terrorists, they are our freedom fighters.”

Several teenage boys covered their faces with kaffiyehs,apparently mimicking the kaffiyeh-covered faces of Hamas terrorists at Yassinmemorials on the West Bank. Standing among the protesters was a staffrepresentative of the Southern California chapter of the Council of AmericanIslamic Relations; a few feet from her at the curb were five Arab-Americanchildren under age 10 chanting, “From the river to the sea, Palestine will befree!”

The chant refers to the Hamas ideology that some dayPalestinians will control all Israeli and West Bank land from the Jordan Riverto the Mediterranean Sea.

The noisy event was peaceful, except for some shoutingbetween the pro-Palestinian demonstrators and about 20 pro-Israel counterdemonstratorsacross the street, where homeless activist Ted Hayes held a U.S. flag alongsideJewish activists with Israeli flags.

The consulate protest was organized by the far-left antiwargroup Answer (Act Now to Stop War & End Racism) and its ally, the FreePalestine Alliance. There were also speakers from the Muslim StudentAssociation and two  Jewish speakers who condemned Israel for what one saidwas, “state terrorism perpetrated by the Jewish State.”

References to Israel as a Nazi-like power were evident invarious swastikas on placards and two large photos showing Israeli PrimeMinister Ariel Sharon with a Hitler mustache. A speaker from the local chapterof the American Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee denounced Israel asterrorist state.

On April 10, some UCLA student activists will launch”Palestine Awareness Week” with films and lectures. On April 23 in Whittier,activists opposed to Israeli demolition of suspected terrorist homes willprotest the bulldozer manufacturer Caterpillar. — David Finnigan, ContributingWriter

Seder at Bubbie’s

Mah Nishtanah Ha Lila HaZeh Mikol HaLeilot?

Why is this night different from all other nights?

On all other nights I’m required to act like a 25-year-old
adult, but on this first night — being the youngest person at my seder table —
I get to be a kid.

For the last seven years, I have flown to Chicago to enjoy
the first night of seder with my Mom, Bubbie, Zayde and Uncle Brad. Yes, this
seder is small, but cozy. And knowing that Bubbie’s kremslach (potato pancakes
with shmaltz) are waiting for me, makes the four-hour flight worth it.Â

During my family’s traditional first-night seder, my Zayde,
who was born in Eastern Europe and lost his parents and sister in the camps,
dons his kittel, the traditional white robe worn on Passover, to preside over
the seder. While we all read out of the same ’50s-looking hardcover hagaddah
(we are not Maxwell House people), there are an assortment scattered around,
from “The Open Door” (my choice) to the Artscroll (my Mom’s) to the several
Hebrew-filled commentaries used by Zayde and Uncle Brad. Everyone has a chance
to chant the “Kiddush” (something my Zayde taught me when I was a teenager as a
surprise for my Bubbie). I sing the Four Questions in Hebrew and my Bubbie then
says it in Yiddish (as her mother, my Big Bubbie, used to), with some help from
my Zayde.

Two Passovers ago, I introduced my family to the Miriam’s
Cup, which is filled with water in honor of Moses’ sister Miriam, who led the
women in song as the Israelis left Egypt. Needless to say, this move was met
with a couple of raised eyebrows, but I’ve got favored-grandchild status. My
mother, on the other hand, doesn’t fare so well. Every time we reach the four
children (gender equality), she always, without fail, ends up with the part of
the wicked child — regardless of where she sits. But every year she grins and
bears it, wearing the title as a badge of honor.

The subterfuge starts after Zayde breaks the middle matzah
for the afikomen. In our family, it is my job to steal the afikomen from my
Zayde. I figure as long as I have to ask the Four Questions, I should reap the
rewards usually reserved for the kiddies. He wraps it up in a white napkin and
puts it on the server near his seat at the head of the table. As soon as he
goes to the kitchen to wash his hands I pounce. I grab the Afikomen and put a
folded-up napkin in its place before he comes back.

When afikomen time hits, I negotiate with Zayde — provided
Uncle Brad hasn’t taken it from where I put it. (Note: When someone asks if you
are 100 percent positive you have something, double check before you say yes.)
When I was younger, I would ask for books or toys; when I was a teen I asked
for my Zayde to stop smoking. Now I don’t ask for anything — it’s all about the
thrill of being able to grab and hide.

The thrills continue as we sail throughout the rest of the
seder. “Who Knows One?” becomes an exercise in lung power as my mother and I
compete to see who can say “I Know Thirteen” in one breath. We sing the verses
of “Chad Gadya” in the same manner and contemplate how much a zuzim would be
worth in today’s economy.

When our seder is over, it’s almost like the last day of
camp: you couldn’t wait for it to come and now you are sorry to see it go.

One day, I know, I will no longer be able to go to Bubbie’s
house for Pesach. But even when I have my own seder, with my own youngest child
— and even grandchild? — to say the Four Questions, I will still want to sing
them out loud, as if I were still sitting at Bubbie’s table. Â