Shofar players breathe life into services


High Holy Days services are fast approaching, and the sounds of the shofar soon will fill sanctuaries throughout Los Angeles.

Teruah, nine quick blasts. Shevarim, three medium, wailing sounds. Tekiah, the long, breathy blast. 

But who are the brave souls standing in front of hundreds of congregants performing this mitzvah? They are trumpet players and lawyers. They are people such as Richard Weissman, who has been doing the deed for the past 15 years at Kol Tikvah in Woodland Hills — and in far-flung lands, too.

Last year on a trip to Tibet, the 68-year-old visited the Potala Palace in Lhasa, the 1,000-room, 13-story structure that formerly housed the Dalai Lama. The temptation to blow his shofar — which he had brought along for the trip hoping to find an idyllic locale to play it in — was too much to overcome. So the practicing lawyer brought his shofar to his lips and produced a long blast that turned heads and rang through the valley below. 

“When I got back and thought about the experience, I realized I need to take the shofar wherever I travel and blow it at the highest peak I can find,” Weissman said. “It’s for my spiritual connection. You blend yourself with nature and God.” 

The shofar’s roots go back to ancient Israel, where it was used to announce the New Moon (Rosh Chodesh), calling people together. The instrument, often made from a ram or kudu antelope’s horn, is used during High Holy Days services and during the month of Elul leading up to Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. 

Weissman’s tenure as his congregation’s ba’al shofar (shofar sounder) began when his predecessor took ill on the eve of services 15 years ago. When his rabbi called upon him, knowing of his musical background, Weissman couldn’t say no. 

“He knew I played trumpet. Brass horn players do a lot of shofar blowing,” he said. “Woodwinds are less inclined.” 

Weissman played trumpet in the UCLA marching band during his college years. Up until last year, Weissman blew the shofar alone in front of the congregation, before realizing that he missed the dynamic of playing with other musicians. 

“I was a loner and I needed a group,” he said. “I get more playing with the ensemble. I listen as I’m blowing my shofar. I want to hear everybody and I want to hear it melding together.” 

Weissman also believes that the congregation gets more out of experiencing Kol Tikvah’s shofar performance, in which shofar blowers — ranging in age from 8 to 80 — are stationed throughout the sanctuary, filling the room with different sounds. 

“When you do it alone, you’re the object of everyone’s attention, but the congregation loses sight of what’s really going on. They hear the sounds, but they’re watching me do it and not really hearing. I’ve played in symphony orchestras, marching bands — you’ve got this melding of sounds that makes the whole so much better.” 

Phil Ganz, 61, has been playing shofar at Temple Aliyah in Woodland Hills for over a decade now. He’s a data analyst for the state who has played trumpet his entire life — a skill he leans on heavily in his shofar blowing. 

“I play the shofar exactly the same way I play the trumpet,” he said. “I play with exactly the same embouchure. Some people have different methods, like blowing off to the side. I play exactly the same way. It helped me pick it up fairly quickly.” 

Although he doesn’t remember exactly how he came into the role, the reason he wanted to get involved was always clear. “I realized that I should put my trumpet-playing abilities to good use for the High Holy Days. It’s a good opportunity to give back,” he said. 

Ganz stays sharp in the month leading up to services by practicing during the month of Elul, blowing shofar at the end of Shacharit services every morning and lending his expertise to anyone looking to learn the craft. 

“Every morning during Elul, I try to blow at least one set of three notes, which keeps me warmed up and ready for Rosh Hashanah,” he said. “Oftentimes, I’ll also just blow it for the kids when they ask. It’s giving back to the community. People want and need to hear shofar.” 

Shira Bensonpeck, 25, has been playing the shofar at West Los Angeles’ Temple Isaiah for seven years. She too has a background in brass horn, playing trombone as a child. When she inherited her older brother’s shofar after he moved out, Bensonpeck never looked back. 

“My mom knew I had the lungs for it and signed me up to play at synagogue,” she said. “I guess I traded one instrument in for another.” 

Bensonpeck played at Pasadena Jewish Temple & Center (PJTC) for six years before moving to Temple Isaiah. She admits to being nervous in front of crowds, but the sanctity of the duty helps her overcome the butterflies. 

“When the cantor makes the first call, everything goes blank, and it’s just me and my shofar. It’s my way of connecting with God and doing a mitzvah for everyone else,” she said. 

Going back to her teenage days at PJTC, Bensonpeck has made it a point to visit the homes of congregants, often the elderly, who are unable to attend services. She credits her mother with coming up with the idea to include those who can’t experience the shofar blasts at synagogue. For Bensonpeck, the task enriches her personal High Holy Day experience. 

“I always get tears. It’s a good feeling. They love it,” she said. “They can’t come and for many of them it’s the most profound moment, especially the elderly. It’s what they miss. If they can’t hear it, it’s not the High Holy Days for them.” 

Troy Slaten, 41, a criminal defense attorney, has been blowing shofar at Temple Isaiah — sometimes with Bensonpeck — for the past 10 years. With no musical background, Slaten doesn’t view the shofar through a musical lens like some of his peers, but rather a way to break a language barrier with God. 

“I look at the shofar as a call out to God. We don’t know God’s language,” he said. “This is the primal scream out because we don’t know how God communicates. It’s asking God to listen, to hear us. It awakens everybody, and I’m so honored that I get invited to do this mitzvah.” 

Before his career in law, Slaten was a child actor and he still appears on television frequently as a legal analyst. However, he thinks of High Holy Day services as a separate challenge, one that lights and cameras can’t prepare him for. 

“I’m on television all the time with millions of people watching, but this is my congregation, my family, my tribe. I get nervous,” he said. “I don’t want to shake hands with people because my hands are clamming up. But the nervousness means I care deeply. It’s a good nervous, and it helps me put on a good performance.”

Hebrew word of the week: Teqi’ah


The root t-q-’ is mostly associated with blowing the shofar or trumpet, but a close examination of its uses shows it is much more varied. The original meaning is to “smite, push, thrust” (perhaps related to t-q-f, “attack, use force”). All the other meanings developed from that. It seems, that teqi’ah is the initial physical act of blowing, whereas teru’ah is the resulting sound part.

Selected examples: taqa’ ohel “pitch a tent”;* taqa’ yated / masmer “hammer a peg / nail” (as Judges 16:14); taqa’ stirah “slap”; taqa’ kaf “clap hands (rejoicing)”; give a handshake (as guarantor)”; taqa’ ’af “poke nose into, meddle”; teqa’ “plug, outlet”; nitqa’/ taqua’ “being stuck (in traffic, etc.)”; “being thrust.”

*The biblical place-name teqoa’ probably meant “pitched (tents), encampment” (Amos 1:1), in modern Hebrew ma’ahal (many towns began as a military camp, fort).

Yona Sabar is a professor of Hebrew and Aramaic in the department of Near Eastern Languages & Cultures at UCLA

Blowing the shofar can be a dangerous exercise in chutzpah


“Hold her tongue!”

That’s what I remember: my sister calling out for someone to hold my tongue. 

I remember how my vision turned black, how my knees buckled and my body collapsed — a thud onto the bimah like the drop of a heavy curtain.

My oxygen supply was cut off to my brain, something called cerebral hypoxia. I fainted and convulsed, my body uncontrollably jolting. I heard the members of the congregation, too, and how far away they sounded.

“Is there a doctor?” voices called out. (And for the first time in High Holy Days history, there were absolutely none.)

Not much later, I was sitting in an emergency room at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center. 

“I was blowing on a ram’s horn, and I lost consciousness,” I said while lying down in a curtained room with an I.V., as men and women in scrubs scribbled down notes.

“A shofar?” one of them asked. (And that’s when I found my Jewish doctor.)

This all happened last Rosh Hashanah, and I haven’t blown a shofar since. About a year after the incident, I decided to see where I went wrong and got on the phone with “master blaster” Michael Chusid, author of “Hearing Shofar: The Still Small Voice of the Ram’s Horn.” If there’s such a thing as a shofar professional, Chusid is the man. 

“Had you been practicing throughout the month of Elul?” he asked me.

“No,” I told him. I hadn’t practiced. 

Elul is the Hebrew month of preparation before the High Holy Days. A well-versed shofar blower such as Chusid, who lives in the San Fernando Valley, uses this month to exercise his pipes — the ancient instrument is traditionally blown almost every day during this time. Perhaps if I had done likewise, I could have avoided the spectacle.

“How could I have so much chutzpah to attempt to blow the shofar with no preparation?” I sighed.

“Don’t be so hard on yourself! That chutzpah was your preparation!” Chusid consoled.

To Chusid, the shofar is an act of devotion, for which he is the conduit. 

“It’s not me blowing the shofar. Yes, the air comes from my body, but that’s not where the sound comes from. When I’m sounding the shofar, I sometimes disappear. I’m not aware of my own body. I’m not aware of blowing the shofar. I’m just completely tuned into hearing it,” he said, taking long thoughtful pauses between words, stretching out the syllables.

“It took me 40 years and five minutes to learn to blow the shofar,” he said. “It’s about rite,” meaning that it’s a rite of passage; it happens when the right time comes.

I realized, suddenly, that I had never learned — or even tried to learn — to actually play the shofar. I’d taken a few trumpet lessons a few years back, convinced I was the next trumpet virtuoso — which, I soon found out, was not the case — so I used my cumulative three hours of training in that arena and tried to apply them to the shofar. Chusid made sure to mention that there are drastic differences in playing the two.

“Do you have a shofar there?” Chusid finally asked. “It’s Elul. I haven’t heard it yet today.”

He caught me off guard. I called him because he was a certified expert on the shofar, but now he was asking me to perform over the phone. I was hesitant — the last time I’d attempted this, my driver’s license got revoked. (It’s since been reinstated.)

“Not with me, but I can get one in a second,” I said. 

For the next hour, Chusid became the Mr. Miyagi to my Karate Kid. We switched from phone to Skype to commemorate the shift.

“When a student is ready, a teacher appears,” he said in a calm sage-like way. 

My grandfather’s shofar — the one I used in shul a year ago before collapsing during the tekiah gedolah — is yellow with striations and milk spots. The mouth of it, broken in from too much use, sinks down like a sealed cave. The shofar twists like a ring of smoke, spouting up and out. It smells like animal and tastes like sour bone.

“Are you wearing shoes?” he asked as I settled back onto the floor with the horn. I wasn’t. “Good,” he said, “the place you’re sitting is holy.” 

Here we were, centuries after Abraham and Isaac and the ram that got its horns stuck in the thicket, continuing an ancient tradition, taking turns sounding the shofar over Skype. We went through the scales, the mouth positions, the context (about echoing the tears shed by the mother of Sisera as she mourned the death of her son in the Book of Judges) and the mental approach.

“The shofar blower is supposed to blow as if this is his or her last breath,” Chusid said.

Tekiah gedolah is the last movement. After tekiah, after shevarim, after teruah, tekiah gedolah is the show-stopper, the final encore. When it’s called, the chazzan is crying, “This is the end.” 

The shofar is a siren. At this time of year, it is a wake-up call. In battle, it’s a cry. Joshua and his army circled the walls of Jericho seven times. On the seventh, they brought out their horns, pigeon-breasted. Tekiah gedolah broke through stone and mortar.

Dipping in and out of connection, and rattling through my computer speaker’s static, Chusid blew the shofar. The noise sounded pixelated and warped, but still, it sounded. 

“It’s magical to make the noise because it’s not far away on some mountaintop, or deep in the ocean, but on your lips,” he said. 

Together, we went through the movements in order: tekiah: unbroken and singular; shevarim: three hiccups; teruah: nine whiplashing stutters. And then the last, at long last, tekiah gedolah.

At first, I was anxious and unsure, my palms sweaty. But Chusid was right there with me, streaming through my webcam. I took a deep breath, filled my lungs to the brim with air, set my lips to the horn … and I wailed. 

Art, man and God


I wonder what our prayers sound like to God during these Days of Awe. As the earth spins on its axis and Jews across the globe gather together to worship, I imagine that God hears our longings as a symphony – each soul a note, singular, exceptional, and essential to the whole. Our hearts, the instruments; our words, music to God’s ears.
 
When the shofar sounds and our voices float heavenward, we give great reflection to, among other things, the power of something uniquely human: the power of speech. We ask for forgiveness for mistakes that originate as often from our lips as from our deeds. We repent for words that are negative, meaningless, traitorous, foolish, vulgar, and deceitful, for we understand the eternal truth in King Solomon’s observation, “Life and death are in the hands of the tongue” [Proverbs 18:21]
 
The very idea of prayer, however, recognizes the power of speech not just to harm, but to uplift and transform. We uplift and transform ourselves with prayer, each other with kind words, and the world through art.
 
Art, the universal language, touches us all; atheist and Orthodox, Christian, Muslim, and Jew. It is both earthly and divine; the gift of creation from the Creator. 
 
Tragically, today, art is under siege. With the cultural Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) effort against Israel, politically motivated organizations and individuals in free western societies are using censorship as a strategy to advance their agenda. 
 
Proponents of the cultural boycott want to prevent international audiences from experiencing Israeli art and want to cut the flow of world art going into Israel. They want to bar films from festivals, silence instruments, and take canvases off walls.
 
The risk posed to mankind goes far beyond Israel’s borders or the lineage of the Jewish people. Boycott proponentshave orchestrated a social media and on-the-ground campaign of intimidation that, left unchecked, poses an existential threat to the freedom of artistic expression.
 
Art is integral to the human experience. It is a connective tissue between people and places.  It simultaneously reflects the world in which we live and serves as a vehicle for change.
 
Artists challenge us, bring us together, and provide a bedrock for peace.
 
From the poetry of King David, to the writings of postmodern linguist Ludwig Wittgenstein, traditions both spiritual and secular recognize art’s unique ability to help us understand the world around us in profoundly deep ways that extend beyond the capacity of mere conscious thought.
 
A song can elevate a moment; a book can inspire one’s mind to new thinking. With a human’s breath, the ram’s horn shatters hearts of stone and washes away layers of complacency. Its call is capable of bringing us back to places inside ourselves impenetrable by any other means. 
 
The proximate target of the boycott effort is Israel, but freedom of artistic expression, fundamental to our humanity, is its ultimate victim. 

Lana Melman is the CEO of Liberate Art Inc., a leading expert and commentator on the cultural boycott effort against Israel, a Hollywood liaison, and a professional speaker and writer.

The shofar saves a rabbi’s life: a case study


My patient, an esteemed rabbi, underwent major abdominal surgery lasting several hours. Within one day postoperatively, he was instructed to blow into a mechanical device to help prevent respiratory complications. 

Pulmonary problems are not uncommon after surgery, and they include pneumonia, atelectasis, respiratory failure, prolonged mechanical ventilation, pneumothorax, acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS), pleural effusion and pulmonary embolus.

Atelectasis (collapse of part or all of the lung) is perhaps the most common, particularly in those patients with neuromuscular or chest wall disease. Because atelectasis in some patients appears to be due to repeated small inspirations, deeper breaths may be helpful. Incentive spirometers encourage expansion of the lungs as much as possible above spontaneous breathing — these have proved to be beneficial in controlled studies.

The dilemma

The rebbe blew and blew into the spirometer, but his profound weakness precluded successful deep respiratory excursions. Several doctors and nurses hovered over this frail, gentle, brilliant scholar but could not coax him into breathing deeply. As his attempts increased in frequency, his frustrations grew, as he knew failure could possibly transform into pneumonia or atelectasis, with their attendant consequences. More important, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur were a few days away, and he was emphatic about not missing these High Holy Days; he never missed blowing the shofar during the Days of Awe.

I spoke to the rebbe. He shared his concerns, his fears, his hopes, but focused on his love for all humanity. He conveyed his dream immediately prior to surgery, when he “stood in court and was being judged.” He argued that he is merciful — that he is a good person. Because he is merciful, he wants to help others. He wants to “stay alive to continue to do good things.”

In this same dream, he is moved to another room, surrounded by books — thousands of books — that help convey the word of God. (This array of books is exactly a replica of every room in his house.) He continues to teach: 

“In Genesis, God blows breath in man.” 

“He gives him the ‘soul of life.’ ” 

“Life is ‘God blowing in and out of man.’ ”

“I have the answer,” he cried out. 

“The answer to what?” I asked.

The solution

“It is Rosh Hashanah!” he bellowed. “I need a shofar. Bring me a shofar!”

He put the shofar to his lips and the wailing sound permeated the hospital corridors. His respirations deepened: Full expansion of his lungs was successful. This new “breathing apparatus” may have saved his life. “How do you have the strength?” I asked. 

He replied, “The shofar is blowing itself.” 

Days later, he walked unaided to shul. He stood on the bimah, almost glowing, and he blew the shofar better than anyone could imagine. He felt strong. He felt connected to God.

The physical shofar is nothing more than the hollow horn of a ram. When the breath of a human being is blown through it, however, it undergoes a transformation. It becomes a living embodiment of the heart and emotion of the human being expressing the Divine Self, its sense is pulsing within, crying out to its Maker.

The shofar has an aura of awe and holiness about it. Its blasts can shatter hearts of stone and wash away layers of complacency. Its call is capable of bringing us back to places inside ourselves, impenetrable by any other means. The Baal Shem Tov taught that the shofar is an emotional, intuitive way of gaining access to the deepest recesses of our heart and of divine experiential knowledge. Its blast — a wordless sound — speaks to the heart in a way all the greatest words and insights cannot approach.


Dr. Norman Lavin is a clinical professor of endocrinology and director of endocrinology education at UCLA Medical School. He writes the Jewish Diseases blog at

Hipster guide to the High Holy Days


” target=”_blank”>atidla.com.

 

3 places to get great local honey

” target=”_blank”>Jewels of Elul: Craig Taubman’s gathering of short stories and anecdotes to help us reflect and prepare for the High Holy Days. 

” target=”_blank”>My Jewish Learning: A clearinghouse of handy information about Jewish holidays, culture, beliefs, etc. Think of it as an interactive “Jewish Book of Why” —with more pictures.

” target=”_blank”>10Q: 10 days, 10 questions. Answer each one and next Rosh Hashanah you’ll have your answers sent back to you, so you can reflect on how much you have (or haven’t) changed.

 

 

(by Sinai Temple’s Rabbi Jason Fruithandler)

 

1. It’s long for a reason — the liturgy tries to give as many opportunities for connection as possible.

Over the course of the High Holy Days, there are special extra prayers, special extra Torah readings, and even a whole extra book of the Tanakh — Jonah — is read. The length and diversity of the liturgy is an expression of the tension between the need for communal strength and individual reality. Each of us stands before God (however you define God) with our own set of deeds and misdeeds. Each of us needs a different kind of encouragement or support to embrace our broken, imperfect selves and make a plan to try to be better. Our prayer services offer a community of people reflecting on the year, medieval piyutim (liturgical poems) on the core nature of death, uplifting music about the possibility of being better, stories of our patriarchs and matriarchs doing the best they can, and many other entry points into the themes of the High Holy Days. Each year, I try to find one access point, one theme, one idea, one song to connect to and carry with me into the coming year.

2. Most of the High Holy Days liturgy is written by poets trying to understand the themes of the holidays.

The early rabbis laid out an outline of what themes the prayer leader should touch on. There were no siddurs for the community. There were traveling professionals who had beautiful singing voices and were masters of the Hebrew language. They would take the themes of that outline and elaborate. The siddur represents a collection, made over the course of 2,000 years, of the best work of those prayer leaders. Do you have a favorite poem? Is there a scene from a movie or TV show that moves you? Add your own to create your personal siddur.

3. The sound of the shofar counts as its own prayer.

Maimonides writes that an entire prayer is in his mind each time he hears the shofar. The powerful sounds of the shofar are meant to stir our souls. The content of that private prayer is going to be different for each person, yet the strength of the prayer is amplified — for all are sharing that moment together. The contrast between the short and long blasts gives us a chance to be individuals together in community.

4. Kol Nidre was extraordinarily controversial.

The early rabbis tried for centuries to abolish or at least to adjust the Kol Nidre service. In many ways, it seems to undermine the halachic (Jewish legal) system. Kol Nidre as a service either annuls all of the vows (promises that invoke God’s name) from the previous year or the coming year. It is possible to annul vows in Jewish law, but you need a rabbinic court. During the Kol Nidre service, we make a pretend court out of three Torahs held by three individuals. There is no halachic standing for such a thing. In addition, it seems to completely alleviate the responsibility of making promises. However, every synagogue in the world has a Kol Nidre service. The people overruled the rabbis. People love the moment of Kol Nidre — not because of its legal standing, but because it transitions us into Yom Kippur. What better way to start a day of forgiveness than by facing the fact that we don’t live up to the promises we make to ourselves and others? More than that, we forgive ourselves for those failings. That forgiveness becomes the foundation of an entire day of admitting all of our shortcomings.

5. Rosh Hashanah is the more somber of the two holidays.

It is the day God is our jury and we are found guilty. Yom Kippur is the “happy fast” — God serves as our sentencing judge, and our sentence is commuted. We have another year to try again.

 

 

7 places to “just do your own thing in, like, nature

 

” target=”_blank”>Instructables.com for a guide to building a free-standing DIY sukkah out of PVC pipes. ” target=”_blank”>Sukkot.com offers wood-frame or steel-tube sukkah kits, along with wall materials, bamboo roofing, decorations, and even a lulav and etrog. ” target=”_blank”>SiegerSukkah.com also offer easy-to-assemble sukkahs, but be prepared to shell out a few hundred dollars.

3. Go to a Home Depot or Loews with a budget in mind and the dimensions of your back porch or yard, and channel your inner Tim Allen.

4. Team up with some fellow Jews and build a communal sukkah. There’s no better way to break the Yom Kippur fast than with a nosh among friends under the stars.

 

 

Putting the “high” in High Holy Days – 7 “medical” marijuana strains we’d like to see

 

– Dread Lox

” target=”_blank”>Om Shalom Yoga

” target=”_blank”>Pre-High Holy Days Yoga Unwind & Detox at Sinai Temple, Sept. 21, 11 a.m.-noon.

– The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles ” target=”_blank”>israeliparties.com.

Rosh Hashanah Party, Sept. 18, 7:30 p.m., at The Victorian, 2640 Main St., Santa Monica. There’ll be mingling, music, dancing, appetizers and a festive party spirit. 

Apple Meets Honey Young Professionals Lounge at Sinai Temple, a place for folks in their 20s and 30s to stop by during or after services at Sinai for light bites (Rosh Hashanah only) and mingling. The lounge will be open on Rosh Hashanah Day 1 (Sept. 25), 10:30 a.m.-1 p.m., and on Yom Kippur (Oct. 4), 10:30 a.m.-1 p.m.

Rosh Hashanah Apple Extravaganza Party, Sept. 18, 8 p.m., at Moishe House LA,110 N. Harper Ave., Los Angeles. There’ll be delicious apple cider, apple pie, caramel apple dipping, and a discussion on what Rosh Hashanah means to young Jews.

 

 

6 best places to get round challah

 

Got Kosher?: 8914 W. Pico Blvd. (get the pretzel challah!)

  

6 places to do tashlich

 

” target=”_blank”>Creative Arts Temple, at Mother’s Beach in Marina del Rey, Sept. 26, 10 a.m.

” target=”_blank”>“Down to the River,” East Side Jews, at Marsh Park on the Los Angeles River, Sept. 27, 6:30-9:30 p.m., $40, includes food, drink and transformation. 

” target=”_blank”>IKAR, at Santa Monica Beach, Lifeguard Station 26. Sept. 28, 4:30-7:30 p.m. 

 

 

” target=”_blank”>hearingshofar.blogspot.com.

Self-described “jazz comedian” David Zasloff also offers private lessons. Zasloff has staged shofar shows such as “Shofar-palooza,” and on Oct. 18 at the Beyond Baroque Literary Arts Center, he will perform on the shofar all the Christian songs written by Jews.

The deep wellspring of the Shofar


Venerated Chassidic master Rabbi Hillel of Paritch (in his magnum opus Pelach haRimon) likens the Shofar’s simple but powerful “cry” to a mighty wellspring bursting forth from the depths of the earth. Such a wellspring, explains Reb Hillel, replenishes even a parched river, i.e. one whose flow has all but ceased. While the analogy is admittedly beautiful the question of relevance remains, for how are we Jews of the modern age meant to connect to Reb Hillel’s magnificent teaching? Let us analyze the master’s words a little further. To begin with, Reb Hillel clearly associates the use of Shofar with the unleashing of deep wellsprings, or, sources of flow that are normally concealed from our conscious experience. As is known in the material sciences, nature’s water cycle (hydrologic cycle) exists in two primary expressions: 1) Revealed waters and 2) Concealed waters. “Revealed” waters are simply defined as states of flow that are directly tangible/experiential to us, e.g. Precipitation (rain descending from the clouds above). In contrast, “Concealed waters” can be defined as states of flow that are utterly hidden, e.g.Percolation (water penetrating deep into the earth below). By stating the Shofar unleashes deep waters (waters issuing from the depths of the earth), Reb Hillel suggests that even the waters that are normally concealed (hidden below) come as a result of Shofar bursting forth. This is beautifully intimated in the word Shofar itself, wherein the numerical value of its letters (Shin = 300, Vav = 6, Pey = 80, and Reish = 200) equals exactly the Hebrew word for “wellsprings” (“Ma’ayanot” – Mem = 40, Ayin = 70, Yud = 10, Yud = 10, Nun = 50, Vav = 6, and Tav = 400) 

This phenomenon teaches us that there is an intrinsic relationship between the revealing of “wellsprings,” i.e. sources of hidden water, and Shofar. To help clarify the idea, there is a story told of my ancestor Rav Zev Volf Kitzitz (one of the Ba’al Shem Tov’s closest disciples). As is known from Chassidic tradition, the Ba’al Shem Tov assigned Reb Wolf the awesome task of sounding Shofar every Rosh HaShannah. One year in particular, the Ba’al Shem Tov spent considerable time instructing Reb Wolf as to the appropriate Kabbalistic meditations to be used on Rosh HaShannah (in the hour of sounding the Shofar.) Diligently, Reb Wolf recorded every one of his master’s insights, careful not to omit even a single letter. A week passed, and on the morning of Rosh HaShanah, Rev Wolf confidently proceeded to the synagogue with both his Shofar and the paper containing the Ba’al Shem Tov’s sacred instructions. All of a sudden, a strong gust of wind dislodged the paper from Rev Wolf’s fingers and blew it away, never to be seen again. Trembling and disheartened, Reb Wolf entered the synagogue refusing to gaze upward lest he encounter the haunting eyes of his master. Ascending to the podium, Reb Wolf took hold of the Shofar and with tear filled eyes and a broken heart performed the Tekiot (blasts) as prescribed. The entire assembly trembled at the sounds emanating from the Shofar, for never before had they felt such explosive and penetrating emotion. Upon the conclusion of Rosh HaShannah, the Ba’al Shem Tov approached Rev Wolf and with a smile said, “I am aware of what transpired before Rosh Hashanah (with the loss of the paper), and you should know that with your simple broken heart you  managed to open in the heavens above more gates then my meditations ever could!”                 

From the above narrative we can better appreciate Reb Hillel’s timeless lesson, namely, when we learn to serve G-D like a Shofar, i.e. from a place of deep heartfelt emotion, we manage to reveal a “wellspring” of Divine “flow”, a powerful current of spiritual revelation that breaks through all created barriers and replenishes the “river” of our Jewish consciousness. Once such hidden depths become manifest, even the driest of rivers (the soul most distant/detached from Divine consciousness), erupts with life. This then becomes a powerful and useful meditation for the New Year (Rosh Hashannah) in general, and the sounding of the Shofar in particular, namely, in the hour of the Tekiot (Shofar blasts), to contemplate the hidden depths of your own heart (the hidden spiritual potential deep within you) bursting forth. Visualize, in particular, the light of the Divine flooding forth (like a river), flowing from the heavens above through your head, neck, chest, stomach, back, and extremities. As the Tekiotconclude, ask Hashem to aid you in your quest to reveal more of your Divine potential and strive daily to bring about your new awakening in thought (Prayer), word (Torah study) and deed (acts of kindness).

Rabbi Brandon Gaines is a Kabbalist, acupuncturist, herbalist, and martial arts master in Los Angeles.

The secret signal


Listen. There is a secret signal. It's sort of like a password, a code. And only we know it — we who sound the shofar on Rosh Hashanah. Or at least some of us who sound the shofar know it. Others may know how to sound the shofar, how to blow their breath through the horn and make shofar sounds, but they don't know the secret signal, the password. Just blowing air through a ram's horn does not produce the secret signal. Anyone can do that. You don't have to be Jewish to do that. Ram's horns and the like, the ancient rabbis reminded us, abound everywhere and with most any people. And guess what? They all know how to blow them, how to sound them. Everyone knows how to toot their horn, so to speak. And if that is the case, as it obviously is, then what is the meaning of the psalmic verse we recite before sounding the shofar on Rosh Hashanah: “Happy is the people who knows how to sound [the shofar]”? (Psalms 89:16). Excuse me? Did the writer of this psalm actually believe that we were the only people on Earth who knew how to sound a ram's horn? And that is the question the second-century Rabbi O'shia asked: “Do you really suppose that the nations of the world do not know how to sound the horn? They have countless horns, myriad trumpets and innumerable experts at sounding them, and we declare 'Happy is the people who knows how to sound the shofar?'”

And so Rabbi O'shia explains to us the meaning of that puzzling statement, that it implies a knowing that was transmitted to us as a people from the ancients, a knowing not of how to sound the shofar but a knowing of the secrets behind the sounds and their intent (Midrash Vayik'ra Rabbah 29:4).   Sounding the shofar without this knowledge and its intentions creates sound, but no different than any other sound emerging from any old horn blown by anybody at any time for any reason. On the other hand, sounding the shofar while imbuing your breath with this knowledge and intention creates far more than sound. It communicates. It sends a secret signal understood only in the spirit realm, only in the Realm of the Divine Forces, and becomes part of a vocabulary known only in the God Dictionary. It is the language of spirit. It is a personal mystery communication between the soul and its origin, between Creation and Creator, in a language that is absent any symbols or thoughts, any imagery or gesture. It is the language of דִבּוּר dibbur, of Resonance. It is the communication of breath with Breath, ofרוּחַ  ru'ach with רוּחַ אֶלֹהִים ru'ach elo'heem, of mortal breath with Divine Breath.

In one of the most ancient of our Kabbalistic source texts, we are taught that Sound, Breath/Wind, and Resonance are the three qualities of the Life Force that weaves the Divine Intent through all of Existence (Sefer Yetzirah 1:9 [oldest version]). The drama of these three qualities is played-out in the story of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden: “And they heard the Voice [sound] of God journeying toward the Wind [breath] of the day…. And God then Called [resonance] to The Adam” (Genesis 3:8-9). Thus you have קול ורוח ודבור — Sound, Breath, and Resonance. Sound is carried by Breath toward Resonance. By Sound, writes the 12th-century Rabbi Eliezer of Worms, is meant primal expression, not sound as we know it in the mortal sense. קול [ko'l-sound] is inaudible to the human ear until it is enwrapped in Breath or Spirit or Wind — all the same meaning of רוח [ru'ach]. It then becomes graspable, translatable, when it is further manifested in דבור [dibbur-resonance]. And that quality of the Life Force that is Resonance, this is the Holy Spirit — the flux of the Divine Spirit that is weaving through all that was and is and will be ever since she first hovered over the primal waters of Genesis (Genesis 1:2). Yes, “She.” In the Hebrew, “the Spirit of God hovering over the waters” is referred to in the feminine, by the way.

Okay. Stay with me. You’re old enough, or young enough. And you don’t have to be married with children or have a background in Kabbalah. This is for everyone.

The two most repeated, most common “names” of God in the Torah are י-ה-ו-ה  and אלהים.

י-ה-ו-ה is the weaving Name of God, and it is un-pronounceable because it is always in flux, constantly weaving Creator’s intent for Creation to become.

אלהים (Elo'heem) represents that particular aspect of God that is immanently involved in the life of all beings and that was active at the time of Creation. It is therefore the only name of God mentioned in the genesis of Genesis.  אלהים according to the mystics is a plural word that implies “בַּעַל הַיְכוֹלֶת וּבַּעַל הכֹּחוֹת כֻּלָם Ba'al ha'ye'cho'let u'ba'al ha'ko'cho't ku'lam — The One Who Masters All Possibilities and Who Masters All the Forces” (16th-century Rabbi Yosef Karo in Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chayyim 5:1).

We are also taught that the difference between these two primary qualities of the revealed aspects of God, י-ה-ו-ה  and אלהים — besides one being God Transcendent and one being God Imminent — is that the quality of אלהים is about judgment (after all, creating or sculpting requires a great deal of judgment) and the quality of י-ה-ו-ה  is about mercy. Just like in the story of Abraham and Isaac, where the voice of אלהים resonates in Abraham as a request that he sacrifice his son (Genesis 22:1), and the voice ofי-ה-ו-ה  resonates in Abraham as a demand that he desist from so much as nicking him (Genesis 22:11).

Now to the point.

There is another psalmic verse we recite before blowing the shofar on Rosh Hashanah that goes like this: “אלהים has ascended in the blowing [breath]; and י-ה-ו-ה  [is] within the sound [resonance] of the shofar” (Psalms 47:6).

The intent of the one who sounds the shofar, then, is to conjure the sound of silence, the primal spirit language of which the mystics spoke that precedes audible, vocal sound, the sound of breath that then translates the primal intent into resonance. The intent? A plea, a spirit-signal, that it is now time for the Divine quality of mercy — י-ה-ו-ה  — to override the Divine quality Judgment — אלהים – and that the sacred blend of both qualities merge in unified balance, thus re-creating the First Sound ever mentioned in the Torah, which is described as the Sound ofי-ה-ו-ה אלהים    (Genesis 2:8).

You see, Rosh Hashanah is a ritual of re-doing the Adam and Eve scenario a little differently. The first human couple heard the sound of both י-ה-ו-ה  and אלהים  (Genesis 2:8) but — when asked “Where are you?” they chose to surrender to their sense of shame and respond only to the quality of אלהים. The question was a challenge to them: “Where are you?” as in which voice are you responding to? That of judgment, or that of mercy? They chose the voice of judgment, and thus did the voice of judgment respond in kind and kick them out.
On Rosh Hashanah, through the secret rite of the shofar, we endeavor to turn that around, to begin our new year with transforming that Karmic consciousness of judgment we too often project onto God to one of compassion.

Thus, the secret of the Secret Signal. And so may it be! Because, we need to bring in the New Year not so much with the dictates of the prayerbook as with our deepest, inaudible hopes. Else, every year is just same-old, same-old, and nothing indeed is new under the sun.

Women of the Wall, shielded by police, raises Torah scroll and blows shofar


Women of the Wall blew a shofar at the back of the Western Wall Plaza and raised a Torah scroll at the plaza’s gate under a heavy police barricade.

The police shielded the the estimated 300 women and their male supporters on Wednesday morning at the back of the plaza, facing the wall but distant from it, during Women of the Wall’s monthly Rosh Chodesh service.

As many as six layers of fencing, a 15-foot buffer zone and two lines of police separated the group from a crowd of mostly haredi Orthodox protesters who blew whistles, screamed and chanted insults. In the men’s section of the plaza, a man chanted prayers and psalms into a megaphone, disrupting the women’s monthly Rosh Chodesh service.

As in recent months, thousands of mostly haredi Orthodox girls and young women packed the plaza adjacent to the wall and prayed quietly during the morning.

Women of the Wall has not been allowed to bring a Torah scroll into their monthly service, but before entering the plaza, the group sang together as one woman held a scroll aloft at the plaza’s gate.

By the time Anat Hoffman, the group’s chairwoman, blew the shofar at the end of the service, most of the protesters had dispersed.

Following the service, Hoffman said in a statement, “We will not forget that the Torah is exiled from the Western Wall, due to the discriminatory misuse of power by Rabbi [Shmuel] Rabinowitz,” the rabbi of the Western Wall.

Women of the Wall gathers at the beginning of each Jewish month for a women’s Rosh Chodesh prayer service at the wall. Members had been arrested in the past for wearing prayer shawls due to a law forbidding any practice that falls outside of the wall’s “local custom.”In April, a judge determined that the group’s activities did not contravene the law. Since then, none of the women has been arrested.

Last month, the women were barricaded in the plaza’s corner, far from the wall and next to a public restroom.

Shofars blasting, Bend the Arc urges yes on Prop. 30


Bend the Arc is urging Jewish voters in California to rally behind Proposition 30. 

Gov. Jerry Brown’s measure, which will appear on the November ballot, would collect almost $6 billion in additional revenue to support education, public safety and other public services by temporarily raising sales taxes by a quarter-cent on all purchases, while also increasing income taxes for the state’s top earners.

In their effort, the progressive Jewish group has used all manner of Jewish thematic elements. Bend the Arc launched its campaign in support of Proposition 30 in a sukkah on a Santa Monica beach at the end of September, and on Oct. 15 convened about 40 people in the hot sun at Valley College to hear why students, educators and advocates for public education are urging Jews and other Californians to vote yes on 30. 

At a few points during the press conference, a handful of attendees blew shofars; Bend the Arc called the blasts “a clarion call for justice.”

Symbolism aside, Eric Greene, the organization’s Southern California director, made his case by talking about what might happen if voters reject the measure. 

“The kind of cuts that we’re hearing about are absolutely terrifying,” Greene said. “Weeks being cut off of the school year, more layoffs of teachers.”

The situation facing California’s public institutions of higher education is already pretty dire, according to one Valley College student who spoke at the Oct. 15 press conference. 

Nicole Hutchinson had intended to spend just two years at the community college but is now in her third year of studies there because she can’t get into the oversubscribed classes that she needs. 

“I can’t catch up because the summer sessions have been canceled,” Hutchinson said. 

Should Proposition 30 fail at the polls — and one online poll taken earlier this month by a business group showed support for the measure had dipped below 50 percent for the first time — the situation will almost undoubtedly get worse. Los Angeles’ nine community colleges will have to cut $50 million this year if voters don’t approve the tax hike next month. 

Politics, poverty and prosperity


“With savages, the weak in body or mind are soon eliminated; and those that survive commonly exhibit a vigorous state of health. We civilized men, on the other hand, do our utmost to check the process of elimination; we build asylums for the imbecile, the maimed and the sick; we institute laws for the indigent, and our medical men exert their utmost skill to save the life of everyone to the last moment. … No one who has attended to the breeding of domestic animals will ever doubt that this must be highly injurious to the race of man.”

So Charles Darwin opined in his “The Descent of Man.” Thomas Malthus in “An Essay on the Principle of Population” disapproved of relief for the poor on the grounds that war, disease and poverty are natural antidotes to the rapid explosion of the population. Adam Smith projected an ideal laissez-faire state that would not interfere with society, leading many to oppose government assistance to the poor. 

There is a considerable history of contempt for the poor. Its echoes sound even louder these days. “There must be something wrong with people who can’t or won’t take care of themselves, who live off charity, depend upon the public dole.” I never heard anything like this in my home. Poverty, if it was a disgrace, reflected poorly upon God, not upon the hungry. It raised questions not about the character of poor men and women, but about the powerful and good God who — as we are reminded by the grace after meals — nourishes the whole world with food and sees to it that we never lack for food. “Blessed are You, Lord, who feeds everyone.” The Birkat ha-Mazon (grace) concludes with the bold assertion: “Once I was young and now I am old, yet in all my days I never saw a just person abandoned and his children begging for bread. The Lord will give His people strength. The Lord will bless His people with peace.”

Poverty is no virtue. As Mendele Mocher Sefarim put it, “It is no disgrace, but neither can you be proud of it.” Incorporated in the grace after the meal is the poignant prayer that we “not be in need of gifts from flesh and blood nor of their loans.” However benevolent the donor, it is no joy to receive alms. “Make us dependent only upon You, whose hand is open, ample, full, so that we may not be embarrassed or ashamed.” 

In my home, not poverty but wealth was something of an embarrassment, and the tradition, for all its this-worldliness, kept us at arm’s length from opulence. 

A Torah written in gold is pasul, invalid, and legend reports that when Alexander of Macedonia ordered such a Torah written, it was discovered by the rabbis and summarily buried. God’s name in gold?

A shofar covered with gold may not be used, and its sound is invalid. The sound of the broken notes from a sobbing heart out of a shofar of gold would make it lose its voice. 

The high priest on Yom Kippur must shed his vestments of gold and silver before entering the Holy of Holies. Who could appear to ask forgiveness in gold and silver apparel?

On Shavuot, the bikkurim (first fruits) could be brought into the outer court in gold baskets, but into the inner court only in baskets of straw. 

On Shabbat, money is to be neither touched nor seen. Before the Sabbath, the mitzvah is to search one’s clothes, to break off relations with “the pocket.”

At home I was taught that if a piece of bread fell from the table, it should quickly be picked up and kissed. Bread was God’s gift. I heard wondrous stories about the sacredness of a shtikel broit — “a little piece of bread.” Once, around the third meal of the Sabbath, the disciples of the Rebbe persisted in asking him to tell them where God is. He remained silent, but at last recited the Motzi and pointed to the loaf of bread on the table. God in a piece of bread? There is theology in a piece of bread. And it is important, particularly for children of entitlement living in the Garden of Gucci, to understand Ben-Zoma’s observation: “What labors did Adam have to carry out before he obtained bread to eat? He plowed, he sowed, he reaped, he bound the sheaves, he threshed and winnowed and selected the ears, he ground, then sifted the flour, kneaded and baked, and then, finally, he ate. And I get up and find all things done for me” (Berachot 58a). 

Hamotzi lechem min ha-aretz — that which brings bread out of the earth is godly. Consider the process, the givenness of earth and water and seed, as well as the human energy and ingenuity to turn sheaf into edible cake. “Which is greater, the works of man or of God?” the pagan Tinneius Rufus asked. Rabbi Akiva replied that the works of man are greater than those of God, and illustrated his contention by presenting Tinneius Rufus with sheaves of wheat and loaves of cake. The cakes are greater, not that the works of God are less worthy, but that the full measure of divinity is expressed through the interaction between God’s nature and the crown of His creation. The Motzi is not recited over sheaves of wheat and the Kiddush is not recited over clusters of grapes. The Motzi is recited over the bread, which is made through human effort, and the Kiddush is recited over the fruit of the vine, which human ingenuity cultivates. Both benedictions exemplify the power and goodness of God expressed through the works of human beings. 

Our sages knew that “a blessing does not prevail except through the work of human hands.” And it is in our hands to give bread to the hungry and to do so without ulterior motives, even for the sake of piety. Consider the Chasid who boasted to his rebbe that he had made a fellow Jew pray. A poor man had come asking for a meal, but the Chasid sought to save his soul. “First we must pray,” the Chasid insisted. They both prayed Mincha, then Ma’ ariv, and before the Chasid gave him the bread, he had him wash his hands and recite al netilat yadayim. Hearing his story, the rebbe grew sad. “You meant well, but you have not acted well. There are times when you must act as if there were no God in this world.” “No God in the world?” the Chasid wondered about this blasphemy. “Yes, no God. When a person comes to you in need, you must act as if there is no one, no God, no man, in the world except you yourself and that needy person.” “And what of his soul, his neshamah?” “Take care of your soul and his body,” the rebbe answered. 

Poverty is no blessing, but abstemiousness is no virtue. If you are blessed with wealth, you are bound to live accordingly. Once, some disciples overheard the rabbi chastising the village gevir, the wealthiest man in town, not because he was profligate with his money, but because he was stingy with himself. He would eat only black bread and drink water. The rabbi reminded him that he was a man of means and ordered him to eat fine meats and drink good wine. “Why such strange counsel?” they asked the rabbi. “Because if such a wealthy man is content to eat bread and drink water, he will be more likely to tell a poor man who comes to him, ‘If I, a man of affluence, can make do with food and drink, it is enough for you to eat rocks and sand.’ ” This wisdom the rabbi likely learned from the genius found in the book of Deuteronomy, where those who go up to Jerusalem with the second tithe are told to bestow the money “for whatsoever the soul desireth, for oxen or for wine or for strong drink, or for whatever thy soul asketh of thee.” But in the third and sixth years of the sabbatical year, instead of consuming the second tithe, let the tithe be given for the “Levite, because he has no portion nor inheritance with thee, and the stranger, and the fatherless, and the widow” (Deuteronomy 14:22 f.). He who experiences the joy of food and drink may more likely feel the anguish of those who hunger. “Ye shall eat and be sated and bless the Lord thy God” (Deuteronomy 8:10). The chronology is suggestive. On an empty stomach, blessings grumble in resentment. 

And whom are we to feed? For whom is the Passover Ha Lachma cry, “Let those who are in need come and eat; let those who are in need come and celebrate the Passover”? Why the redundancy? Rabbi Jacob Emden, the Ya’avetz, a distinguished talmudist of the 18th century, offered this explanation in his commentary on the haggadah. The first call to “all who hunger” refers to non-Jews who are ra’ ev la-lechem ve-lo ledvar ha-Shem, those who are hungry for bread and not for the word of God. The second call is for Jews who require the ritual celebration of the Passover, for whom matzah, not bread, is needed. Our obligation, Rabbi Emden declared, is toward both Jews and non-Jews. Here he cites the Talmud Gittin 61: “Our rabbis have taught: We support the poor of the heathen along with the poor of Israel, and visit the sick of the heathen along with the sick of Israel, console the bereaved of the heathen together with the bereaved of Israel, and bury the dead of the heathen together with the dead of Israel.” We do this for the sake of peace, for the sake of God. 

We begin the meal with bread, among other reasons, to remind us that we are men of flesh and blood, not angels. So it is told of Rabbi Israel Salanter that he would recite Shalom Aleichem, the hymn which greets the angels who visit us on Shabbat, after the Motzi, and not, as others practice, before the breaking of the bread. For angels do not eat or drink, but we and our family and the guests around the table are not angels. We have bodies and hungers. Eat first, and greet the angels later. 

There is much instruction in a piece of bread. 


More stories for Sukkot: 

At joint iftar celebration, Muslim-Jewish High School Council launched


A recent break-fast meal, held in the courtyard of the Westside Jewish Community Center, began with the blowing of a shofar. The sun hadn’t yet set, so the baskets of pita and dried dates placed on every table remained untouched.

And Yom Kippur was more than a month away.

“Ramadan Mubarak,” said Rabbi Sarah Bassin to the 200-odd Jews and Muslims who had gathered on Thursday evening, Aug. 9, to participate in an iftar, the nightly meal that marks the end of each day of fasting during the holy month of Ramadan.

Bassin is the executive director of NewGround, a project aimed at creating an atmosphere of trust between American Muslims and Jews, rather than one of mutual suspicion. To that end, NewGround is in the process of assembling a fifth cohort of 20 young Muslim and Jewish professionals for its fellowship.

On Aug. 9, the organization officially launched a second, similar initiative, the Muslim-Jewish High School Leadership Council. During the coming academic year, eight Jewish and eight Muslim high school students will gather for biweekly seminars and other activities designed to foster relationships and teach them about Muslims and Jews in America.

But if the council’s work can be described in concrete tasks, at least some at the JCC spoke of far loftier goals.

“I want to prove them all wrong,” Natalia Jean Garatto, a member of the new council and president of her youth group at Temple Emanuel in Beverly Hills, told the gathering. “The people who believe that the wars and mutual intolerance will never end and those that think that teenagers have no influence or ability to impact our world.”

Rabbi Sharon Brous of IKAR began the evening by offering words of prayer, and acknowledged the poignancy of a group of Muslims and Jews gathering in the wake of the mass shooting that took place at a Sikh temple in Wisconsin earlier in the week. It was a chance, she said, for people of faith to stand in solidarity, not just with the Sikh community, but with the Muslim community that the killer believed he was targeting.

“We stand together tonight dedicated to realizing the triumph of light over darkness, and love over all else,” Brous said.

The iftar was sponsored by a handful of Muslim and Jewish groups and was choreographed to demonstrate how the council hopes to achieve its lofty goals, but also served to illustrate for the attendees — including the 14 fellows, their families and other members of the local Muslim and Jewish communities — a number of commonalities between the Jewish and Muslim faiths.

The Muslims broke the day’s fast with dried dates; Imam Rushdan Mujahid-Deen of Masjid Bilal Islamic Center explained it was customary for the first food eaten each evening of Ramadan to be a natural food. Some of the Muslims then went upstairs for the Maghrib prayer while a handful of Jews stood in a section of the courtyard for the Ma’ariv service.

What followed was a substantial meal, with the crowd serving themselves plates of vegetarian Indian food from a buffet. Then, under the night sky, Muslims and Jews sat down together. They talked, listened and ate.

“Food always gets people together,” said Mirvat Kamel, whose daughter, Maha, is taking part in the council this year, “that’s what we said.”

Finding Torah in the American wilderness


When the sun set on Saturday, Zelig Golden blew his shofar, calling more than a 100 people of all ages and backgrounds to assemble in a giant circle in Bort Meadow, a campground in Chabot Anthony Regional Park.

“All our prophets had their epiphanies in nature,” Golden, 38, told to the crowd, marking the start of Shavuot and a program that he believes could spread across the American and even world Jewish community.

If those gathered wished to receive their own revelation, he said, they had to venture into the wilderness as well.

“Revelation is not a lighting bolt that fills your head with wisdom all at once. It’s when you look at a blade of grass and say, that’s amazing. When you see the specks of green in someone’s eyes,” Golden continued.

After music and dancing, participants were invited to grab the ends of the ribbons hanging from the “Omer Poll.”

They wrapped themselves around the attached 49 strands—each representing a day between the exodus from Egypt and the receiving of the Torah at Mount Sinai.

Throughout the weekend long “Shavuot on the Mountain” event, organized by the Bay area-based Wilderness Torah, participants were encouraged to reengage with Judaism, nature and the relationship between the two.

Golden kept his head covered with a wide-brimmed cowboy hat or a knitted head covering, never a traditional kippah. His beard, hosting a few gray hairs, would suit either a traditional rabbi or an outdoorsy type who likes to camp and to keep a warm face.

Golden is a mixture of both, and he isn’t coy about Wilderness Torah being his idea.

Raised in a traditional home in a small Jewish community in Spokane, Wash., he moved to California to attend Berkeley School of Law.

Until 2010, he worked as an environmental lawyer for the Center for Food Safety, protecting farmers from genetically modified organisms, or GMOs.

He became depressed, he said, at his job, despite the positive impact he knew it had on the issues he cared about. “I lost my derech,” he said, using the Hebrew word for “path.”

His path to spirituality began with a non-religious meditation group for lawyers.

That ignited a spark. “I realized that it was something that was missing from my life and I wanted more of it,” he said.

His search eventually led him to Berkeley’s Jewish Renewal community, Chochmat HaLev, or “wisdom of the heart.”

The group partnered with Hazon, the Jewish environmentalist group, and engaged in issues of and programs on sustainability and the environment.

For Sukkot 2007, Golden and a handful of other Chochmat HaLev members organized a camping trip to the Sacramento Valley’s Eatwell Farm, their Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) affiliate.

While only a few dozen people attended that first event, today Wilderness Torah is an independent organization that sees hundreds of participants in their desert camping expeditions and youth mentorship programs.

The latter include b’nai mitzvah programs that weave Jewish thought with outdoor skills.

At the Shavuot on the Mountain program, a popular joke was that Wilderness Torah events are like the Jewish Burning Man, the annual contemporary cultural held in Nevada’s Black Rock Desert.

It’s another way of saying that these programs are open and welcoming, particularly to all things New Age.

In fact, both festivals aim to establish an idyllic village community in nature, leading to all sorts of creative expressions.

So it was not surprise to see someone strike a yoga pose or break out the Hula-Hoop during a Torah service that took place in the cool shade of pine trees.

But while Burning Man is partly fueled by psychedelics and clothing is optional, Wilderness Torah makes a concerted effort to be a child-friendly, family experience.

Indeed, the many kids in the “Children’s Village,” a kind of daycare where they were entertained and educated (with parents allowed to attend their activities), seemed to be enjoying playing outdoors for the entire weekend—not an Angry Bird in sight.

Most of the younger participants were asleep by the start of the night-long tikkun, or study session. It followed the 10 p.m. Shavuot celebration opening and Havdalah.

With the desert temperature dropping and the wind picking up, pages with sacred text were blowing in the hands of those who gripped them while reading by flashlight.

The adults broke into several nearby groups began their night of learning.

One, with Golden, studied writings on Shavuot in the Torah and other commentaries. Not far away, Rabbi Daniel Lev guided a group in an activity called “Shema Between the Sheets: Spiritual Intimacy at Bedtime.”

By 5 a.m., a handful of the hardiest had made it to the Shacharit sunrise services, led by Chochmat HaLev’s Rabbi SaraLeya Schely.

As that small group prayed, most people remained asleep in the tents dotting the surrounding meadow. Even Golden wasn’t in sight, maybe finally allowing himself a few hours of sleep.

Perhaps he was storing energy for what he hopes is next: Spreading the program around the globe.

Indeed, he said that process has already begun.

“What’s really exciting is that were being approached from people all over,” he said. “We get requests from Australia, the UK, Canada, Israel. We want to take what we’re doing here and spread it across the Jewish world.”

Make the shofar blast a call to serve


Those who observe the Jewish High Holidays have begun a period of intense introspection and “judgment.” On Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, piercing shofar blasts will conclude a 25-hour fast, we will set a course toward making good our obligations to others.

This year when the shofar blasts, I hope it will be a call to serve.

As a national Jewish service organization, we are constantly questioning what we as a community can do to make good on our obligation to help improve our society—for the short and the long term.

The questions become ever more timely as we welcome the year 5772. Hunger, poverty and unemployment pervade our communities. Cities and towns across America face severe budget cuts that threaten the viability of crucial social service programs. Individuals and families are struggling.

Against this backdrop, momentum is building among young adults for a renewed commitment to having a positive impact on the world through volunteering. While the percentage of millennial volunteers is down from previous years, in 2010, 11.6 million young men and women in this cohort dedicated 1.2 billion hours of service to communities across the country. That’s a lot.

But today, more than ever, we need our young adults to engage in service on a sustained basis. And we all must work together to help raise a generation of citizens that gives back.

In Volunteering + Values: A Repair the World Report on Jewish Young Adults, a landmark survey of Jewish millennials and their attitudes and behaviors concerning community service, Repair the World found that while this cohort demonstrates an abiding commitment to volunteerism, it is episodic rather than long term.

In fact, fewer than three in 10 young adults volunteer on a monthly or more frequent basis. Just one in five have participated at some point in their lives in an intensive program of one to 12 weeks, such as an alternative college spring break or an immersive summer experience. And only one in 20 has participated in a term of service of three months or longer.

While the Repair the World study focused on young Jewish adults, its results can serve as a road map for nonprofit and community organizations to attract greater numbers of young adults to the tasks of bettering our communities, our nation and our world.

And as we and other groups embark on this road toward tackling the world’s issues, we must listen to what millennials are telling us about themselves, their passions and their motivations.

From the study, we have learned that young adults must think they can make a real difference in people’s lives by working on issues about which they care deeply. For young Jewish adults, these include eradicating poverty and illiteracy, and improving the environment.

We’ve also come to understand that organizational flexibility is essential. For those issue areas in which volunteer options are limited or nonexistent, new opportunities must be developed while existing service opportunities must be better communicated.

We know that short-term volunteering, if thoughtfully done, can lead to long-term engagement. Pathways should be forged that lead young adults from light interest in an issue to more graduated levels of commitment.

Of particular note, communication to millennials must embrace the centrality of social networks in their lives. More than 80 percent of young people utilize social media and other web-based communication tools. We, too, should use them.

Finally, collaboration is key. Faith-based organizations should invest in smart partnerships with other leading volunteer efforts—secular, faith-based and governmental.

Volunteers can help address critical needs—as service providers, advocates and change-makers. But our challenge—our imperative—is to ensure that we provide the tools to further the commitment of young adults to service, so that it becomes a defining feature of their adult lives.

Rosh Hashanah ‘in the house tonight’ dances into the new year


Aish brings together rhythm, beats and davening for their Rosh Hashanah ‘in the house tonight’ dancing spectacle that parodies LMFAO’s Party Rock Anthem.  Here’s the chorus from the lyrics, but be sure to watch the video for the full effect.

Rosh Hashanah’s in the house tonight
All the world is passing through the light
Let’s all get written in the book of Life
Shana Tova—it’s High Holiday time

 

Australian rabbi blows shofar at 9/11 ceremony


A Sydney rabbi sounded the shofar in a major cathedral in the Australian city to mark the 10th anniversary of 9/11.

Rabbi Jeremy Lawrence, senior rabbi of the Great Synagogue, blew the shofar in St. Mary’s Cathedral Sunday as part of the anniversary commemorations for the victims of 9/11, including the 10 Australians who were killed on the fateful day.

Lawrence was preceded by an Aboriginal elder who opened the emotional ceremony, in the presence of the New South Wales governor and premier, with the drone of the didgeridoo.

The rabbi said in his address that one of the shofar notes, teruah, had three parts.

“At its heart is a cry,” he said. “But the wailing is sandwiched between two solid blasts of hope. Hope, sadness, hope—that is how we respond to the destruction of an iconic landmark.”

They have a blast at shofar-blowing class


It was like the beginning of a meeting for a 12-step program. One by one, they said their names, where they live and how they became addicted … to playing the shofar.

Mitch Dorf, a television sound mixer and self-described Grateful Dead fan, says he loves the opportunity to play his “ax” at The Wiltern for his congregation, Wilshire Boulevard Temple. “I’m on a stage where I’ve seen Bob Dylan, the Allman Brothers and the Stones,” he said.

“With the shofar, you can do it in a plain fashion or you can do it in a grand fashion,” said veteran shofar blower Alan Abelson, who led High Holy Days services for prison inmates for 30 years. “It’s all kosher.”

A crowd of approximately 25 male and female ba’alei tekiah (shofar master blasters) gathered at Shalom House in Woodland Hills to network, swap stories and exchange tips on getting the right sound. The Aug. 30 event, “Shofaron for Master Blasters,” provided experienced shofar blowers, who are in their respective congregations during the High Holy Days, with the rare opportunity to listen to each other perform and learn from one another.

“The idea was to get different shofar blowers from different synagogues throughout the Los Angeles area and to share techniques, to share stories and to talk about the importance of shofar,” said Michael Chusid, who organized and facilitated the workshop. “Since blowing shofar is a right that is hand-taught from one generation to next, there really isn’t a formal study of shofar.”

Between Aug. 29 and Aug. 31, meetings like these took place in 10 cities in the United States and abroad, including San Francisco, New York and London. Chusid, who has taught the shofar at American Jewish University, developed the idea for the International Day of Shofar Study along with three other skilled shofar blowers from around the country. Together they’re building Shofar Corps — a network of talented and committed shofar blowers who are willing to learn from each other and to share their passion for shofar.

“We realized there were a lot of shofarists who were doing the job but not with much skill or understanding. So the responsibility of people who are experts at shofar [coming together] to mentor others quickly developed [into] the notion of an International Day of Shofar Study,” Chusid said.

The shofar is traditionally made from a ram’s horn and is blown during Rosh Hashanah to mark the beginning of the High Holy Days and at the end of the Yom Kippur service. It is considered a commandment to hear the shofar blown.

Chusid says that too often, people in hospitals, nursing homes and prisons don’t hear a shofar during Rosh Hashanah or Yom Kippur. He hopes the development of Shofar Corps will eventually address this problem.

The shofar workshop in Woodland Hills drew an eclectic crowd, including an oboe player who had recently taken to the shofar, a Jewish Valley resident who works as a professional Santa Claus and a comedian who can play a shofar rendition of “Flight of the Bumblebee.”

Local synagogues assisted with outreach for the Aug. 30 event, and e-mails referred people to the Shofar Corps Web site, shofarcorps.org, which Chusid helped launched in June. David Cooperman, owner of Shalom House, said he was happy to host the event at his Ventura Boulevard Judaica shop.

“I thought it was a great idea,” Cooperman said, “and something that, if we could be a part of, we would be.”

After introductions, the floor was opened up to participants’ questions.

“Are rams slaughtered solely for shofar or are they already dead?” Beth Chayim Chadashim congregant Lauren Schlau asked.

The rams were slaughtered for food, Cooperman said.

Sarah Fortman, a local cantorial student and one of the youngest members of the group, asked if a cracked shofar was acceptable. 

The shofar had to be fixed before it could be played, people responded. Melted keratin would do the trick, Abelson said.

When it came to sharing tricks of the trade, Joe Guttman of Shomrei Torah Synagogue, volunteered: “You use your lips, you use your tongue and you use, believe it or not, your stomach.”

“The diaphragm,” somone added.

At the end of the session, after showing off their own shofars, the participants stood and blasted in unison.

“The shofar is an ancient way of communication, something that is based biblically on the heritage of our people. Having the sound brings back images, Bible stories, of Torah, of coming together as a community,” Cooperman said.

For some, the evening provided inspiration to improve their shofar skils.

“All the stories that people were telling from our tradition about shofar, it opened my heart, opened my eyes, opened my ears,” Schlau said, “and I’m going to go home and practice.”

Additional informal shofar classes for the public will be offered throughout the afternoon of Sunday, Sept. 11, at Shalom House.

Informal shofar classes for the public will be offered throughout the afternoon of Sunday, Sept. 11 at Shalom House, 19740 Ventura Blvd., Woodland Hills. For more information, call (818) 704-7100 or visit shofarcorps.org.

Yom Kippur Dilemma


Is it just me, or does Yom Kippur seem to arrive earlier and more frequently these days?

I feel like I’ve barely had time to recover from one when the next one’s announced, and then I have to toughen up and refrain from saying things like “oh no, not again,” in front of my kids, because I want to set a good example for them; be a good Jew at least a few days a year; and make sure they realize how important it is for them to observe the holidays now and later, when they have formed their own families.

The few friends in whom I confide — I’m sorry I know this is the holiest day of the year I don’t want to commit heresy but somehow, it leaves me feeling empty and dissatisfied, like I’ve been to the water’s edge and found I’m unable to drink, taken to the ball and forbidden to dance — always laugh when I make my confession. They ask if I mind fasting (I do, and I hate the caffeine withdrawal headache, but that’s not my problem), if I have bad memories of Yom Kippurs past and if I resent having to give up a workday.

None of the above, I tell them, but then I have a hard time saying more, because I know what they think — that I have no one to blame but myself for this failure to have a meaningful experience on Yom Kippur, that I can’t feel the spirit of this one day because I’m not a good enough Jew the rest of the year.

It’s true that I don’t go to temple every week, don’t keep kosher, drive on Shabbat (am I really saying this in The Jewish Journal? Could this be the last time you hear from me in this publication?).

But I do uphold faithfully and with genuine enthusiasm the values of family and friendship, of kindness to strangers and fairness with all, of honesty and truthfulness. I do try to examine my actions and thoughts all year, to understand where I’ve failed and how I can do better. And I do feel guilty every day, for the myriad mistakes I know I’ve made, the countless ways in which I’ve let the world down. I don’t need to go to shul every week to acknowledge my sins; I have a voice in my head reminding me of them all the time, a bad record on auto-play with no “off” switch in sight. What I do need, what I go to temple to look for every Yom Kippur and come back empty-handed, is a voice I can believe in, words that resonate beyond the ordinary, the awareness that I have, at long last, discovered not just what I do wrong but how to do it right.

Maybe I’m expecting too much of a holiday, but it seems to me there’s something different about Yom Kippur — an expectation of a spiritual voyage that is at once self-reflective and outward looking, calming and transformative, that I think one must feel and that evades me every year. When I was younger and lived in Iran, I thought it was the manner in which services were conducted that made the experience meaningless from a spiritual standpoint: our synagogue was in an old building, unadorned on the outside, unostentatious on the inside. The men sat in packed rows on the ground floor facing the bimah, trying hard to one-up each other by praying faster and more loudly than everyone else. The stage was crowded, the aisles were packed with people and, since there was no such thing as an annual membership with specific dues, much of the day’s activities focused on raising money for the synagogue.

Upstairs in the balcony, the women sat together in religious exile, excluded from the services by their distance from the bimah and the fact that they didn’t read Hebrew and we didn’t have prayer books in Farsi. They chased their mischievous kids and paraded their marriage-age daughters and flaunted news of their sons’ academic or financial achievements. It was all very nice and convivial, but not exactly fertile ground for spiritual contemplation and, anyway, ours was not the kind of individual, search-for-yourself-you-shall-find kind of spirituality that’s in vogue in the West. We were told — by our rabbis, our parents, our teachers and basically everyone above the age of 12 — that we must believe, and believe we did, or said we did, because the consequences of defiance were just too great to chance.

In America the first few years, I delighted in the ability to celebrate the holidays proudly and without the need to keep a low profile with the neighbors. I joined a temple, sent my kids to the day school and to bar mitzvah classes. On Yom Kippur, I went to shul eagerly, read the prayers in English and waited for the rabbis to say something of great depth or meaning. Everyone around me was quiet and respectful; the kids were safely tucked away in the temple’s day care; the elderly gentlemen who acted as the temple’s gatekeepers were characteristically impatient and abrasive. But (this being America where everything is bigger and bolder and more spectacular than elsewhere), our temple had about 1,500 congregants. On the High Holy Days, I sat among a thousand congregants packed into one enormous hall. The room was so big, you couldn’t see the bimah or the rabbis (they dressed in white robes that looked suspiciously like wanna-be-priest costumes) except on a couple of huge video screens. The choir broke in every three minutes, and it was all so much spectacle and so little substance that I got tired, and decided to move to a smaller, more quiet temple.

This one had a policy of ranking congregants by the level of membership at which they had joined. To be let into the main sanctuary on Yom Kippur, you had to come in at the highest level, and even then there was no guarantee that you would be assigned a seat anywhere close enough to the bimah to feel you were actually part of the services. If you paid only the basic dues, you were sent to one of the many satellite services, and then all your friends would know how little you had paid (only $5,000) and how much respect you actually deserved and, as long as we’re being honest here, you could have donated an elevator and built a classroom, spent countless hours volunteering at the temple’s day school, taken a dozen classes with the rabbi — and you still got sideway glances from the Ashkenazis members of the temple, still felt they saw a scarlet letter “I” every time they looked you in the eyes.

The third synagogue was smaller and less trendy, and maybe for this reason it didn’t have enough room for all its members, so services were held in a nearby church. The first year I joined, I took my mother with me. She’s an observant Jew, keeps kosher and believes in the importance of faith and tradition. She took one look at the 50-foot wooden cross behind the stage where the rabbi was starting the services and declared she had had enough. Let these Reform Jews pray where they want, she wasn’t going to sit and look at a cross all day long on Yom Kippur.

The Iranian temples in Beverly Hills and West Hollywood and the Valley still follow the my-way-or-the-highway tradition of the old country: You do as everyone else (including vote Republican) or you’re a degenerate mole serving the interests of Hezbollah.

We have more synagogues and more freedom to use them here in Los Angeles than we did in Iran, but that doesn’t mean we’re any closer to fulfilling the true purpose of gathering in a house of worship. For me, Yom Kippur in Los Angeles is still very much like Yom Kippur in Iran — a night when I can sit down to a small dinner with my husband and children, a second night when we gather with our extended families to break the fast, when we say thanks for the blessing of being loved by others and the good fortune of reuniting with those we love. When we are struck by the absence of those who had sat around the same table in earlier years and who are no longer with us, and we remember their favorite foods, their quirky habits, the certainty we all had that we would be together again next year.

And in between the two nights, a search for meaning and faith that somehow still manages to elude me.

Gina Nahai is an author and a professor of creative writing at USC. Her latest novel is “Caspian Rain” (MacAdam Cage, 2007). Her column appears monthly in The Journal.

VIDEO: Alistair Cohen — Shofar Blowing 101


From the 23-year-old Brit’s YouTube page:
My name is Alistair Cohen and I am an aspiring television presenter. This video was created for showreel material and to spread some Jewish knowledge around a bit.

Please don’t hesitate to leave any feedback or comments, and if you are watching this and may know of any presenting work available, please contact me at alistaircohen@hotmail.com. Thanks for watching.

Obama conference call with rabbis covers education, the meaning of the shofar, support for Israel


Barack Obama told a conference call of rabbis this morning that he supports government funding for after-school and mentoring programs in faith-based schools.

Speaking to 900 rabbis on a pre-Rosh Hashanah call, Obama said he opposes “vouchers” for private schools, but would continue to support funding, as is currently provided in the No Child Left Behind law, for after-school, tutoring, mentoring and summer programs at private and religious schools, according to a press release from the Orthodox Union and other rabbis who participated in the call.

Participants said Obama talked about a number of issues and took four questions from leaders of the four major denominations during the more than 40 minutes he spent on the call. The economy, education, energy, Israel and Iran were among the topics he discussed, reiterating the “unacceptability” of Iran obtaining nuclear weapons.

With the call coming less than two weeks before Rosh Hashanah, the Democratic nominee wished the group “Shanah Tovah.” He also discussed how the shofar raises people from “slumber” to “set out on a better path” and how he hoped his campaign could do the same, according to rabbis on the call.

Rabbi Sam Gordon, who introduced Obama and serves as co-chair of “Rabbis for Obama,” said he believed that a presidential candidate speaking to hundreds of rabbis was “unprecedented” during a political campaign, and that Obama showed an impressive “depth of knowledge” — at one point referring to the largest modern Orthodox high school in Chicago by name, the Ida Crown Academy, when discussing faith-based schools.

The one complaint about the call was the speech of the other rabbi introducing Obam by Elliot Dorff, vice chair of the Conservative Movement’s Committee on Jewish Law and Standards and a professor at the American Jewish University (AJU). One rabbi who did not wish to be identified said Dorff’s speech was “way too partisan” and the Orthodox Union’s blog said Dorff essentially compared John McCain to Haman.

The Obama campaign has released portions of his remarks on the call:

“I know that for rabbis this is the busiest time of the year as you prepare for the High Holy Days. So I am grateful for a few minutes of your time. I extend my New Years greetings to you and to your congregations and communities. I want to wish everybody a Shana Tovah and I hope that you will convey my wishes to all of those you pray and celebrate with this Rosh Hashanah.

The Jewish New Year is unlike the new years of any other cultures. In part because it’s not simply a time for revelry; it’s a time for what might be called determined rejoicing. A time to put your affairs with other people in order so you can honestly turn to God. A time to recommit to the serious work of tikkun olamof mending the world.”

Senator Obama noted the significance of the Shofar in our lives for Rosh Hashanah and beyond, stating:

“And I know that the Shofar is going to be blown in your synagogues over Rosh Hashanah and there are many interpretations of its significance. One that I have heard that resonates with me is rousing us from our slumber so that we recognize our responsibilities and repent for our misdeeds and set out on a better path. The people in every community across this land join our campaign and I like to think that they are sounding that Shofar and to rouse this nation out of its slumber and to compel us to confront our challenges and ensure a better path. It’s a call to action. So as this New Year dawns, I am optimistic about our ability to overcome the challenges we face and the opportunity that we can bring the change we need not only to our nation but also to the world.”

Barack Obama also stated the need for leadership in both our troubled economy and foreign policy. Speaking of his recent trip to Israel and his unwavering commitment to the US-Israel relationship and Israel’s security, he noted: “I think that it’s also important to recognize that throughout my career in the State Legislature and now in the U.S. Senate I have been a stalwart friend of Israel. On every single issue related to Israel’s security, I have been unwavering, and will continue to be unwavering. My belief is that Israel’s security is sacrosanct and we have to ensure that as the soul democracy in the Middle East, one of our greatest allies in the world, one that shares a special relationship with us and shares our values, we have to make sure that they have the support whether its financial or military to sustain their security and the hostile environment. And its also important that we are an effective partner with them in pursuing the possibilities of peace in the future, and that requires not only active engagement and negotiations that may take place with Palestinians but it also requires that we stand tough and with great clarity when it comes to Iran and the unacceptability of them possessing nuclear weapons. During my recent visit to Israel, I had the occasion to meet with all of the major political players. That was my second visit there and I think that they all came away with assurance of my commitment with respect to Israel”

A wake-up call from the ‘Master Blaster’ rocks retirement home


“Master Blaster” Michael Chusid got down on his knees so he could face Ida and Shirley, who sat on a couch at Encino Retirement Home. In Chusid’s left hand was a shofar, his spiritual/musical instrument and constant companion during the High Holy Days.

The two elderly women, along with the rest of the dozen residents of the nursing home — some of whom seemed to be in their own private zone of silence and disconnection — looked at Chusid expectantly. In his mid-50s, wearing glasses, with a thick salt-and-pepper beard and imposing presence, the Master Blaster has a gentle, authoritative air.

“Are you a rabbi?” Ida asked.

“No,” said Chusid, a member of Makom Ohr Shalom. “I blow the shofar.”

He held up the ram’s horn and spoke slowly and loudly, aware that some of the residents couldn’t hear, or couldn’t grasp what he was saying.

“So,” Chusid said, “who knows what time of year this is?”

“It’s New Year!” Shirley said.

Chusid smiled, nodded, as did Craig Weisz, husband of Debra Orenstein, rabbi of Makom Ohr Shalom, a congregation founded in 1978 that’s affiliated with the ALEPH movement for the Renewal of Judaism.

The visit to Encino Retirement Home was part of a two-pronged Makom program using the shofar as an instrument of prayer. According to Reb Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, spiritual founder of the Renewal movement, “davenology” means developing creative new forms of meaningful prayer. Expansion of shofar use is davenology in action.

One prong of this program is the Shofar Corps. During Makom’s High Holy Days, about 100 people, located throughout the sanctuary, blast shofarot at the same time. (The group holds its Shabbat services at St. Paul’s Methodist church in Tarzana, but this year is observing the High Holy Days at Knollwood Country Club in Granada Hills.)

“The tradition of the single shofar-blower is a wonderful image of the solitary spiritual warrior,” Chusid said. “It brings everyone together in one voice. But it’s very different when 100 people in the congregation stand up, wherever they’re sitting. So instead of the shofar being something up there, it’s all around you. That sonic field creates a vibration, a spirit. I visualize the blast creating a vibration that travels throughout the community and around the planet to wherever healing needs to take place.”

The other prong of Makom’s shofar program is “to get the larger community involved,” said Chusid, a marketing consultant specializing in building materials. “So in 2005, we started giving classes in how to blow the shofar.”

Chusid stressed that he teaches for free to all who want to learn, whether or not they’re part of the Makom family.

“And in 2006, we expanded the program by doing outreach: visiting hospitals, nursing homes, prisons … even those confined to their homes,” he added.

Weisz mentioned that his son’s preschool has requested a visit from the Master Blaster.

“When I go to a preschool,” Chusid said, “I bring a bunch of shofarot and teach the children how to blow them. They get really excited.”

Before going into the nursing home, Chusid had tried to teach an unmusical reporter how to blow the shofar. He talked about proper breathing and proper stance, about pursing the lips. The reporter had some limited success, squeezing out a few squeaky “ptzzzzz” sounds.

“The idea isn’t necessarily to blow, though that’s part of it,” Chusid said. “The idea is to hear. Reb Zalman says that’s the basic command we were given as Jews: to hear.”

Indeed, when Chusid was kneeling in front of Ida and Shirley, he recited a prayer thanking God for the privilege of hearing the shofar. Chusid and Weisz recited the higianu in Hebrew, then in English, thanking God for having “brought us to this place, right here, right now.”

Those last few words struck a resonant chord with the nursing home residents, conscious of what stage of life they’re in. They sighed gratefully.

Chusid looked around. The climactic moment had arrived. He brought the shofar to his lips and cut loose with a set of master blasts: one tekiyah, then another and another.

The piercing sounds triggered immediate reactions. Ida and Shirley broke into great giant grins, ear to ear, their eyes suddenly bright. More blasts: teruah, tekiah g’dolah. For an instant the residents of the nursing home looked like preschoolers: joy, shock, wonder, even awe — and something else in their eyes: a primal memory from childhood.

Chusid quoted Maimonides: “If the shofar blowing is heartfelt, the blasts have the power to wake the dead.” Well, maybe. The people at the nursing home weren’t dead, of course, but there had been an air of quiet drowsiness.

The shofar blast sliced through it: tekiah-ah-ah, teruah-ah-ah. Suddenly, the blasts of the shofar gave the nursing home residents a moment of surprising wakefulness.

As the Master Blaster points out: Anyone, at any stage of life, can use a wake-up call.

For more information, call Makom Ohr Shalom at (818) 725-7600, or visit shofarot@gmail.com.

Happy New Year — shofar so good!


5768

Whether you spend Rosh Hashanah in services, in the kids’ room or in the hallway, when it’s time for the shofar to blow everyone listens. Fill in the blanks with the words below and learn more about the shofar (visit jewishjournal.com for the answers):

The shofar is made from a _______’s horn, which is blown a lot like a ________. Hearing the sounding of the shofar in synagogue is considered one of the “_____” of the holiday, but the shofar is not blown if Rosh Hashanah falls on ________.
Blowing the shofar marks the beginning of the ___ ____. It tells us to “____ __” and is tied into the second day’s _____ portion, the Binding of _____ (Genesis, chapter 22), where God tests ________’s faith by asking him to sacrifice his son. Abraham is about to sacrifice Isaac when an _____ stops him. Abraham finds a ram and kills it instead. (There’s a lot more to this story, but you’ll hear about it all in shul.)

There are different types of shofar notes: tekiah, a three-second one; _________, three notes; teruah, nine short blasts; and _____ _______ (“the big one”), the final blast. Some people hold the note so long their face turns red. When you add it up, a total of 100 ______ are sounded each day.

Abraham
angel
Isaac
musts
New Year
notes
ram
Shabbat
shevarim
tekiah gedolah
Torah
trumpet
wake up

For the secular New Year, many people like to make a resolution – a promise – that they’ll do something in a different way in the coming year. YeLAdim wants to know if you have a resolution for the Jewish New Year: Will you be nicer to your brother, sister or friend? Clean your room? Call your bubbe more? Stop putting off homework?

In addition to resolutions, Rosh Hashanah is a time to ask forgiveness for bad things we might have done during the past year: Did you yell at a friend? Did you play with your brother’s PSP without asking? Did you read your sister’s diary?

YeLAdim is giving you the chance to make resolutions and ask forgiveness. Tell us what you plan to change in 5768 or what you’d like to be forgiven for. You can send your ideas to kids@jewishjournal.com. We’ll print your responses, and, who knows, maybe you’ll inspire others.

Make A Date

YeLAdim loves a good weekly planner – and we came across a really cool one: “The Calendar of the Jewish People – The Animated Edition (starring The Jewish Day That Starts at Night).” With its cute graphics, info boxes and helpful backgrounds on the holidays, you won’t have to shlep around both a Hebrew and a secular calendar. For more information, visit

Holiday tunes for when you haven’t got a prayer


I like work. It fascinates me. I can sit and look at it for hours.
— Jerome K. Jerome


 
Perhaps it is the intensity of the emotions raised by the liturgy itself. Or the power of worshipping in a sanctuary filled with people. Or the sense that everything is at stake.

 
I like to think it’s the music.

 
But whatever the reason, the High Holidays provide some of the greatest frissons one can experience in a synagogue. And the music is, indeed, a big part of those rising chills. One need look no farther than four new CDs that include generous helpings of music for the Days of Awe to hear evidence of the power of these holidays to inspire composers and performers.

 
Sometimes the simplest music has the greatest impact. Consider “Shomeah Tefillah: Prayers of the High Holy Days,” a CD by Cantor Lois Welber of Temple B’nai Israel, Revere, Mass. Almost all the music on this recording is from Israel Alter, one of the great Conservative cantors of the 20th century.

 
Alter didn’t write classical hazanut; his compositions are devoid of the coloratura pyrotechnics of the Golden Age cantors. Rather, his settings of the Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur liturgies, published 35 years ago, are straightforward, emotionally direct and comparatively simple. And that is the source of their power.

 
Welber opts for an equally simple and powerful approach. Accompanied only by organist Ernest Rakhlin or pianist David Sparr, she tackles Alter’s music head-on, not with flash but great feeling. Welber has a resonant mezzo voice, not glitzy but profoundly effective. The result is a tribute to the power of simplicity.
 
The mandolin i
s an instrument whose sound resonates with poignancy. In the hands of masters like Dave Grisman and Andy Statman, the gentle ringing of its strings carries a powerful emotional charge.

 
Put those two musicians together with “a collection of timeless Jewish melodies,” as their new CD “New Shabbos Waltz” bills itself, and the result is a sterling blend of deeply emotive music.

 
The set kicks off with a melancholy “Avinu Malkeinu,” with Statman’s plangent clarinet stating the traditional tune while Grisman comps behind him. The duo deftly trade leads on this and the other cuts on the record, aided immeasurably by some silky slide guitar from Bob Brozman and rock-solid timekeeping by Hal Blaine on drums and Jim Kerwin on bass.

 
Statman is in a more playful mood than on his recent excursions into Chasidic mysticism, and his interplay with Grisman is delightful throughout.

 
Two of the latest entries in Naxos Records’ series of Milken Archive recordings feature contemporary orchestral pieces inspired by the High Holiday liturgy. In fact, both Herman Berlinski (“From the World of My Father”) and David Stock (“A Little Miracle”) have tried their hand at re-imaginings of the shofar service for Rosh Hashanah. (Given that this year Rosh Hashanah falls on Shabbat and there is no shofar service, I find this an amusing coincidence.)

 
Berlinski (1910-2001) was a student of the great Nadia Boulanger, albeit an unhappy one, and I think I detect some of her influence in the rich, dense sound tapestry of Berlinski’s “From the World of My Father,” a lovely 1941 piece that pays homage to the synagogue and folk music of Eastern Europe. His 1964 “Shofar Service” is a fairly straightforward setting of the old Union Prayerbook liturgy, here ably performed by the BBC Singers conducted by Avner Itai.

 
Not surprisingly, Berlinski blends two trumpets with the shofar itself, to considerable dramatic effect. Although he was a friend of Olivier Messiaen and his circle, on the pieces included here, Berlinski is not interested in the less-is-more aesthetic of Messiaen; his is a resolutely post-Romantic palette, whether he is writing for organ (“The Burning Bush”) or full orchestra (“Symphonic Visions for Orchestra”).

 
Stock, who was born in 1939, is of a more obviously modernist bent than Berlinski. His operatic monodrama, “A Little Miracle,” which retells an extraordinary story of Holocaust survivors, owes a bit of its rhythmic drive to Schoenberg (perhaps with a nod to Gershwin).

 
But his “Yizkor” is surprisingly conservative, powerfully melodic and quietly restrained. By contrast, his shofar piece, “Tekiah,” written for trumpet and crisply performed by Stephen Burns and the Pittsburgh New Music Ensemble with the composer conducting, has moments that are distinctly reminiscent of the heyday of minimalism. One hears echoes of Glass in the repetitive ensemble figures behind the staccato trumpet line, and the contrast between foreground and background is a fruitful one. The result is an intriguing recording, but I don’t imagine your local shul is going to try it any time soon.

 

George Robinson is the film and music critic for Jewish Week. His book, “Essential Torah: A Complete Guide to the Five Books of Moses,” will be published by Shocken Books in October.


 

“Shomeah Tefillah: Prayers of the High Holy Days,” can be purchased at www.loiswelber.com.

 

“New Shabbos Waltz” can be purchased at www.acousticdisc.com

“From the World of My Father” and “A Little Miracle” can be purchased at www.milkenarchive.org.

There’s A Message in the Sounds of the Shofar


The approach of Rosh Hashanah always takes me back in memory to my bar mitzvah, which took place on Shabbat Shuvah — the Sabbath of Repentance that comes
between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.

Two weighty questions preoccupied me that day in 1964. One: what did it mean that God called Jews and the world to “repent” or “return,” because all of us had “stumbled in sin?” The prophet Hosea, whose words I chanted that morning, insisted in God’s name that God cared about how we treated one another, and that we could all do better.

He promised that God would help us do better if we turned to the task. I marveled at this promise. It was and remains a great mystery to me.

The other big question on my mind that September day in Philadelphia was whether the Phillies, under manager Gene Mauch, could hold on to their position atop the National League and win the pennant for the first time in my life.

The optimists among my friends took victory as a near-certainty. The Phillies were six games ahead. Things looked really promising.

The pessimists warned that the team would blow it. It turned out that they were right. The Phillies lost 13 of the next 20 games.

This, too, was a mystery to me. Was it bad pitching, bad managing, bad luck? Maybe it was fate.

I bring up the connection between Rosh Hashanah and the Phillies because it gets to the heart of what the Jewish holidays mean to me each fall. In a word: it’s not fate. How things go is largely up to us, even if we do not control the circumstances of our lives.

The New Year is a time at once joyful and solemn for Jews, because it marks a new beginning for each of us. It carries the assurance that we all do get a second chance and urges us to seize hold of it.

The world, too, can be better than it is — a hope desperately needed this year. We have witnessed so much suffering in the Middle East and elsewhere — so little peace for Israel or Iraq, Darfur or the Congo.

I can still chant by heart, thanks to months of practice for my bar mitzvah, Hosea’s promise that we can change this: “The person who is wise will consider these words. The person who is prudent will take note of them. For the paths of the Lord are smooth. The righteous can walk on them.”

Hosea urged Jews more than 2,500 years ago to “blow a shofar in Zion” so as to call the people to turn and return. Jews still blow a ram’s horn at Rosh Hashanah for exactly the same reason. We need to hear loud and clear, again and again, the message to which it summons us.

Many interpretations have been given to the notes struck by the horn, but the one that means the most to me is this. The shofar’s first sound, tekiah, is a wake-up call. It calls us to attention. Look around, it says. Things are not OK. Your work is needed to set them — and yourself — right.

The second sound made by the shofar is called shevarim, or “breaks.” The world is broken. The horn imitates its cries, preventing us from stopping up our ears or our heart.

Teruah, a series of short blasts one after another, gives us marching orders. Change requires small steps that each of us has to take modestly but with determination. Overreaching will not work.

The shofar-blowing ends with a return to the first notes, longer this time — a “great tekiah.” It lets us know what victory sounds like. We can change our ways. So can the world.

Honesty compels each of us to concede that we’ve tried before to turn things around and haven’t managed it. Experiences of failure haunt all of us, not just fans of the 1964 Phillies. That’s why we need Rosh Hashanah each year to remind us that this beginning can be different.

May we all heed the shofar’s call this year and prove that the world, which so needs fixing right now, can be made better — and that we can make it so.

Professor Arnold M. Eisen is chancellor-elect of the Jewish Theological Seminary.

You can listen the

Your Basic High Holiday FAQ


Every year they roll around, and every year you’re not quite sure what to do. Go ahead, ask us. After years of answering readers’ questions, we’ve compiled the most frequently asked ones below:

Why do synagogues charge for High Holiday tickets?

Hate to say it, but this is the most frequently asked question of all. The answer, in a nutshell: There’s no free lunch. The High Holidays are traditionally the time most Jews go to synagogue, so the ideal time to raise money to keep the synagogue afloat the rest of the year. Lights, payroll, heating, rabbis, ads in The Jewish Journal — none of it is free. See listings on page 40.

OK, so, now tell me what these holidays mean, anyway.

“Rosh Hashanah” literally translates as “head of the year.” It celebrates the creation of the world. The holiday is observed on the first day of the Hebrew month of Tishrei, which usually falls in September or October, and marks the beginning of a 10-day period of prayer, self-examination and repentance, which culminates on the fast day of Yom Kippur. These 10 days are referred to as Yamim Nora’im, the Days of Awe or the High Holidays.

Synagogue services give us time to reflect and resolve, but prayer and meditation are not enough to bring repentance. The only way to atone for sins we commit against others is by sincerely apologizing, making good our transgressions, and asking for forgiveness.

What are Selichot?

Selichot, meaning forgiveness, are penitential prayers recited by Jews prior to the onset of the High Holiday season. They prepare us for 10 days of reflection and self-examination. Sephardim begin them in Elul, and Ashkenazim on the week before Rosh Hashanah. And you can do them in any synagogue — for free.

What is Tashlich?

Usually performed on the first day of Rosh Hashanah after the afternoon service (unless it falls on the Sabbath), Tashlich is the symbolic casting away of our transgressions. We go to a flowing body of water, perform a short service asking for forgiveness and throw bread into the water (some throw rocks).

Why do we dip an apple into honey on Rosh Hashanah? And what’s with pomegranates?

Sweet apples dipped into sweet honey equal a sweet year. The numerous seeds of the pomegranates — which just happen to reach ripeness this time of year — symbolize our good deeds. Other traditional foods for this time of year are round challahs (symbolizing a complete, whole year) and, among Sephardic Jews, whole fish.

What is Yom Kippur?

Yom Kippur means “Day of Atonement.” “The tenth of this seventh month shall be the Day of Atonement for you” (Leviticus 23:27). Yom Kippur is observed by abstaining from work, by fasting and by attending communal prayers.

Why do we fast on Yom Kippur?

The Torah commands us to afflict our bodies on this holiday.

Why do we blow the shofar?

The shofar is made from a ram’s horn. It is sounded every morning during the month preceding Rosh Hashanah, on Rosh Hashanah itself and again at the conclusion of Yom Kippur. Its piercing sound is a “wake-up call” to repent.

What is Kol Nidre?

Erev Yom Kippur services begin with Kol Nidre, the opening prayer and also the name of the evening service. Kol Nidre is an Aramaic declaration that nullifies all the vows and promises that each person will make to God and to him/herself in the coming year, an acknowledgment of the weakness of human resolution. Wearing white is common on Kol Nidre as a symbol of purity.

What is Yizkor?

Yizkor is a service that recalls loved ones who have died and is recited on Yom Kippur.

How do we atone for our sins?

Yom Kippur atones only for sins between humanity and God, not for sins against another person. To atone for sins against another person, you must first apologize, righting the wrongs you committed if possible. This must all be done before the conclusion of Yom Kippur.

What is the Jewish definition of sin?

In Judaism, the word “sin” has different connotations than it does in our wider culture. “Sin” in Judaism is generally not something for which a person will be punished in the afterlife, but is rather an improper act for which one can ask forgiveness — not just of God, but of other human beings, as well.

If I skip services on the High Holidays, will a lightening bolt strike me?

Yes. Just kidding. For more information, link to sites like urj.org/holidays and www.askmoses.com visit www.jewishjournal.com. — Staff Report

 

Acts of Faith – Farewell Service


After World War II, two Jewish GIs returned to Los Angeles and founded a synagogue in Westchester. Beth Tikvah, as it was called, finally found a permanent home in 1959 on the Westchester bluffs.

But last month, the Conservative congregation — known since 1968 as B’nai Tikvah after merging with the nearby B’nai Israel in Baldwin Hills — held its last service at the historic Westchester building, with its 204-seat sanctuary. On Aug. 20, about 100 people showed up for a final Havdalah service to say goodbye.

Because of dwindling membership and a lack of Jewish families in the area, the congregation decided to sell the property and look for a new location on the Westside.

“We got well over the appraised price, and about a half a million over the asking price,” said Rabbi Jason van Leeuwen, or “Reb Jason,” who did not disclose what the congregation received from a real estate company that plans to build condominiums.

At its apex in the 1960s, B’nai Tikvah had some 400 member families, said Rabbi Marvin Bornstein, who served as its leader from 1953-1984.

“It was humming day and night there,” he told The Journal.

But then white flight happened, and Jews began leaving Westchester and the nearby neighborhoods of Inglewood and Ladera Heights. The airport also needed more land and started buying up property.

“They cut our membership in half just by expanding the airport. It reduced us to maybe 150 families,” Bornstein said. “That was a big blow.”

But things are not over for B’nai Tivkah, said Van Leeuwen, who had been brought in a year ago to drive up membership.

The congregation will move its religious and nursery schools to the site of the former Montessori school at 8820 Sepulveda Eastway in Westchester, and will hold most services at the adjacent Westchester Christian Church. In addition, the congregation will share a location with Temple Beth Torah in Mar Vista, which has about 60 families.

Van Leeuwen said he hopes in the next three to five years to increase membership, cultivate a donor base and find a new site.

Bornstein delivered the keynote speech at the goodbye ceremony.

“I told them that the spirit of a synagogue is not expressed in the building that they have. It’s expressed in the hopes and dreams of the congregation, and that I hope they will continue to dream and rebuild. And someday, I hope they will invite me to put a mezuzah on their new building.”

“It must have been a pretty emotional speech,” he said, “because for the first time in my life, I got a standing ovation.”

For more information on services, schools or the Festival of Faith ceremony on Sept. 18 at 1:30 p.m. with the Westchester Christian Church, call (310) 645 6262.

100 Shofars to Sound

Michael Chusid was 10 years old when he first tried to blow a shofar, the traditional ram’s horn sounded on the High Holidays.

“I did not have a teacher, so I huffed and puffed until my cheeks hurt without getting even a small toot,” he said.

It was so difficult that he did not touch a shofar again for 30 years.

“During that time, I would go to synagogue on the High Holidays, but I felt alienated from what was going on there. When I would hear shofar during the services, I noticed everyone around me was excited, but I could not feel any connect with the ritual.”

But Chusid has come a long way. These days he is such an expert in the art of the horn that he teaches classes around the city for other amateurs who were once like himself.

How did he come so far?

In 1994, he began attending Makom Ohr Shalom, a Jewish Renewal temple in Granada Hills. There he discovered how to participate in all aspects of worship — including blowing the shofar, which was accomplished by many members of the congregation instead of just one leader.

“The sound they made was on a whole different magnitude, both acoustically and spiritually, from anything I had experienced before. When I heard the shofar, I felt a great relief, as if a heavy burden had been lifted from my spirit.”

Chusid went out and bought himself a shofar, learned how to play it — and started teaching others. Now, this Rosh Hashanah (Oct. 3, 4 and 5), he expects to hear the sound of 100 people blowing shofar at Makom Ohr Shalom. That’s a twist on the tradition that Jews are meant to hear 100 blasts of the Shofar throughout the holiday.

For anyone who wants to participate — or learn for their own synagogue — Chusid is teaching workshops this month around the city on the art and spirituality of shofar-blowing.

He compares it to “blowing raspberries,” except that the lips have to be curled over the teeth and pressed together. The sound is made by the buzzing of the lips, and when you force air through the pursed lips, they vibrate and make a sound.

“Many people know the shofar as a battle cry, like at Jericho,” Chusid said, noting that it can also be used to call the end of war, for teshuva or repentance, as well as a wake-up call for tikkun olam, the obligation to help repair the world.

“When I blow the shofar, I visualize my blast creating a vibration that travels throughout the community and around the planet to wherever healing needs to take place.”

Free shofar blowing classes: Monday, Sept. 12, 6:30 to 8 p.m., Valley Beth Shalom, 15739 Ventura Blvd., Encino, (818) 788-6000, www.vbs.org. Friday, Sept. 16, 7:10-8 p.m., prior to Shabbat services, Makom Ohr Shalom, 5619 Lindley Ave. (at Burbank Boulevard), Tarzana, (818) 725-7600, www.makom.org. To schedule classes, contact Michael Chusid at (818) 774-0003 or send an e-mail to shofarot@gmail.com.

 

A Parent’s Mercy


It was about this time last year that my 2 1¼2-year-old son decided to begin his terrible twos. At first we hoped that we’d been given a reprieve, but we soon discovered otherwise. He was apparently intent on making up for lost time.

I never knew what he would do next, or what the next casualty might be. If I ever took an afternoon nap, I had to mentally brace myself before re-entering the war zone — I mean living room.

But whatever he did — and he did plenty — he always had the same line when he got caught. It came with big brown eyes opened wide, and the sweetest smile: "I not gonna do it a-n-y-more."

At first, we actually believed him. But we learned quickly. It became a joke at times, a source of frustration at others. But he continued to say it with the same childish innocence, and we continued to not buy it with the same parental cynicism — until our perspective changed.

It was the end of the second day of Rosh Hashanah. My neighbor and I were sitting on a bench, watching our children play as the darkening sky brought the holiday to a close. The kids were playing tag in the street (this is Israel, after all), when we saw a truck coming down the road. The kids dashed for the sidewalk.

Suddenly I realized that Meir wasn’t among them.

"Did you see Meir?" I asked my neighbor.

"No."

My heart pounding, I looked around. No Meir.

Calm down, I told myself. Maybe he just went into the house.

My daughter went to check. She came right back out again and reported that the door was locked.

Locked? I hadn’t locked the door. How could it be locked?

I looked up at our apartment. To my relief, the gate to the yard was open. I asked one of the boys to climb up and jump the fence while I waited outside the front door. The boy opened it with a big smile and pointed to the kitchen.

I walked in to find Meir seated at the kitchen table, licking a purloined popsicle with sheer delight.

As I stared at him, I knew what was coming. Sure enough, he stopped licking, gave me those eyes and said, "Mommy, I not gonna do it a-n-y-more."

I was all set to tell him that he had better not say that anymore, when suddenly, like that morning’s first shofar blasts, it hit me.

I do this all the time.

Especially around Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.

Throughout the year, I make mistakes. I say things I shouldn’t. I listen to them, too. I don’t pray with proper concentration. I raise my voice. The list is much longer.

But as the High Holidays approach, I wake up and hear the shofar, and I know that I have to clean up my act, fast.

So what do I say to God?

I’ll tell you what I say.

"Hashem, please forgive me. I’m not gonna do any of it a-n-y-more."

Instead of letting little Meir have it, I let little me have it.

Do I mean what I say? Do I really think that I’m never going to do these things again? Who am I kidding?

But I’m not kidding, I answered myself. I want to be better. I really do.

And my children? Don’t they deserve the same chance that I am oh so willing to extend to myself? Might Meir, when he’s caught, be just as sincere as I believe myself to be?

I sat down next to him, took his sticky hands in mine, and held him on my lap. "If we are like children," we say after each set of shofar blasts on Rosh Hashanah, "have mercy upon us as a father has on his children."

Our sages teach us that God deals with us as we deal with others. Beseeching Him to have mercy upon us as a father means that we parents have a special opportunity to "tip the scales." If we view our children’s behavior as a metaphor for our relationship with our own Father in Heaven, we might not be so quick to pass judgment on them.

After all, if God can continue to believe His children’s promises of "I’m not gonna do it a-n-y-more," year after year, shouldn’t we be able to do the same?

Of course there are lessons that we must teach our children. But if we deliver those lessons with love and understanding, we may merit the same from above.

May that merit be ours, now, as the New Year approaches.


Dafna Breines, an editor and translator, lives with her husband and children in Beitar Eilit, Israel.

The Shofar


Davi Cheng had some trepidation when she went to Hillel for the first time. She tried to feel comfortable, but she couldn’t understand the language of the services and the liturgical rituals were confusing.

Then she spied something unfamiliar on a bookshelf that made her feel right at home: a shofar.

"I really wanted to go over there and pick it up and blow it," said Cheng, who converted to Judaism six years ago.

In the ensuing years, the shofar became a personal religious motif for Cheng. She had a rabbi blow a shofar while she immersed in the mikvah for her conversion. She studied its laws by learning ancient texts, its sounds by listening to CDs and ended up becoming the shofar blower for her congregation, Beth Chayim Chadashim. When she designed the stained-glass windows for her temple, she featured the shofar prominently.

"The shofar was always something that I was drawn to, and I can’t give you the reason why," Cheng said. "It’s primal."

Ironically it is this inarticulateness that perhaps describes best the essence of the shofar experience. It also goes a long way in explaining why the shofar has weathered all the morphings of the Jewish tradition to remain the same instrument that it was in ancient times, and to become, in many senses, one of the great unifiers of the Jewish people. Go into any shul on Rosh Hashanah in any part of the world, and the one thing every service will have in common is the blowing of the shofar. It is an indispensable part of the liturgy, and its deep symbolic value and meaning belies its simple rustic origin. And yet, for all its meaning, for all its kabalistic secrets and for all its historical significance, at its core, the shofar is, as Cheng said, primal. Each blast sings the longings of the soul and it transcends our contrived communal labels.

Unlike, say, phylacteries, a shofar is a religious item that requires little religious obligation or expertise. While the shofar itself needs to come from a kosher animal (but not a cow, so as not to remind God of the sin of the golden calf) we are obliged only to hear its blast. Increasingly, the passive experience of the hearing the shofar is giving way to a more active one. In many shuls it is lay people, not rabbis, who blow the shofar for the High Holiday services.

This month, more than 55 schools in Southern California had Chabad’s mobile shofar factory come and transform raw rams’ horns into blowable shofars with their students. Chabad even set up the shofar factories in 20 Albertsons supermarkets.

On the consumer side, a shofar is becoming a popular bar or bat mitzvah gift, so much so that Judaica store owners report that the current "trend" in shofars is rough-hewn, unvarnished horns. And manufacturers are responding to the demand by producing "easy-blow" and "scentless" shofars that have larger mouthpieces and no animal smell.

"The shofar is a universal symbol of the coming of the New Year, and that makes it a fascinating thing for people," said Rabbi Berel Cohen, West Coast Chabad Lubavitch youth program director.

In fact, the shofar ritual is so widespread that it has spilled over into the Christian community. Thousands of evangelical and charismatic churches in the United States are blowing the shofar as part of their services and selling shofars in their gift shops — showing the enduring popularity of the most oft-mentioned instrument in the Tanach.

The shofar was blown at most of the significant events in ancient Jewish history. When the Jews received the Torah on Mount Sinai, and the mountain was engulfed in flames, a mighty shofar sounded and the nation "trembled" (Exodus 19:19). Its blast was used to announce the new moon, and to sanctify the Jubilee year, the 50th year in the calendar cycle in which all debts were forgiven, slaves were freed and land in Israel reverted back to its original owner. When Joshua encircled the city of Jericho, seven priests blew seven shofars, and the wall of the city came tumbling down. Judges like Gideon and Ehud, son of Geira, would blow the shofar as a battle cry, before slaying Israel’s enemies. After the judges died out, the shofar was blown when kings were anointed. In the future, when the Messiah comes, Elijah the Prophet will blow the shofar to herald both his arrival and the resurrection of the dead.

Today, we no longer use the shofar to signify God’s presence on a flaming mountain, or to bring down the walls of a city, but the biblical command of blowing the shofar on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur remains. On those days, the shofar is a one-note instrument that plays a symphony of meaning. As Rosh Hashanah is the anniversary of the creation of the world, we blow the shofar to proclaim God’s sovereignty over the world and us, to redeclare Him as our king.

The shofar is also meant to trigger the forces that will cause us to have a good year. It is the sound that should inspire us to repent, and it is also the sound that will provoke God to act mercifully when he is inscribing us in the Book of Life.

Maimonides writes of the shofar as a spiritual alarm clock that should awaken "sleepers from their sleep, slumberers from their slumber," and prompt everyone to repent. It puts us in God’s good graces, because as a ram’s horn, the Talmud says it reminds God of the binding of Isaac (the Torah portion that is read in synagogues on the second day of Rosh Hashanah), when Abraham was willing to sacrifice his son at God’s command, until the last minute when God relieved him of the obligation and Abraham sacrificed a ram instead. The blowing of the shofar is meant to remind God of our similar eagerness to do what He wants, to "bind" us to Him. The shofar is bent, commentators say, because we too should "bend our will" to God’s.

According to kabbalah, the blowing of the shofar causes a great esoteric tumult. The Zohar says that the sounds of the shofar are strong enough to "break the powers of wrath," and when they ascend to the heavens, "judgment departs" and "mercy is awakened."

The blasts are also meant to confound Satan. According to rabbinic tradition, on Rosh Hashanah, Satan is up in heaven just waiting to prosecute the Jewish people with lists of their misdeeds, but when he hears the second and third set of blasts of the shofar, he gets all confused and falls down in his prosecutorial duties.

"The shofar is really the clarion call of a Jew that allows us to access Hashem at the deepest level," said Rabbi Binyomin Lisbon, who blows the shofar at Bais Bezalel on Pico Boulevard. "Its language transcends words. The shofar represent the inner voice that we cannot access so easily during the year, because we are so busy."

Like many other shofar blowers in the city, Lisbon practices his blasts by blowing the shofar every day during the month of Elul, when it is customary to blow the shofar in anticipation of Rosh Hashanah.

There are three main blasts of the shofar: tekiah, a long, drawn out complete sound; shevarim, three shorter sounds of equal length; and the teruah, nine short staccato sounds. There is also the tekiah gedolah, which is a protracted tekiah.

"The tekiahs are like bookends for what is in between," said Robert Smith, the shofar blower at B’nai David-Judea. "The tekiah at the front and the tekiah at the back have to be same length as what is in the middle."

"Your lips have to be tight to blow," said Brent Kaplan, a 14-year-old French horn player who blows the shofar for the family minyan at Temple Emmanuel in Beverly Hills. "You have to use a lot more air and push it up from your chest rather than just your mouth, and you buzz your lips to get the sound."

For shofar blowers like Smith and Kaplan, the challenge of Rosh Hashanah is making sure preserving enough lungpower and strengthening their lip muscles to make it through the hundred obligatory blasts of the shofar during the Musaf service.

"The shofar blower is not supposed to talk from the time he makes the first blessing to the end of the last blast, and I do that," Smith said. "I really try to shut everyone out and just concentrate on the shofar blowing. It makes it an intense experience. But I am exhausted after I finish. I feel completely spent."

For other shofar blowers, the experience is not so much about getting the sounds out, but about remembering the reasons for the sounds.

"The first time I blow it I am thinking "let’s do it right," and I am paying attention to the task, but then when things are going smoothly I am thinking about how I want to reconnect my soul to God," said Dr. Simcha Goldman, a psychologist who blows the shofar at The Jewish Learning Exchange. "In the Orthodox version of repentance, you don’t confess to specific sins — it’s more about the need to enhance and repair one’s relationship with God. On Rosh Hashanah you have know who you are dealing with."

Goldman says it is up to the listener to extract the deeper meaning in the blasts.

"The listener should listen with appropriate concentration," he said. "It’s intended to elicit a thinking response from the person blowing it and the person listening to it."

But all agree that the shofar’s plaintive wail distinguishes it from all other instruments.

"When someone hears a French horn, they may not think about much," said Rabbi Jonathan Aaron, associate rabbi at Temple Emmanuel who plays the French horn in addition to being the temple’s shofar blower. "But when you hear the shofar it is dripping with the tradition of Judaism. There is something about a shofar that completely penetrates."

7 Days In Arts


Saturday

Aaron Samson wrote and stars in “Not Dead Yet,” a piece inspired by his grandfather’s memoirs of his Russian past: working for Leon Trotsky, the consequent threat of execution by Russia’s communist regime and his quick escape to the United States where he began a new life. The one-man show follows the journey of a grandson, Jacob Samson, back to Russia to find his roots and the missing pieces of the story his grandfather Leo wrote down. It plays today at the Elephant Lab.Runs Saturdays, through Sept. 18. 8 p.m. $10. 1078 Lillian Way, Los Angeles. (323) 878-2377.

Sunday

Might wanna throw some buttered popcorn into the picnic basket tonight for the Hollywood Bowl’s movie night program, “The Big Picture.” John Mauceri conducts the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra in selections from MGM/UA movie scores, as scenes from the films are projected on the Bowl’s giant screen. The James Bond series, “Rocky,” “The Pink Panther” and “West Side Story” are some of the featured films.7:30 p.m. $3-$88. 2301 N. Highland Ave., Hollywood. (213) 480-3232 (for tickets).

Monday

Horn in on High Holiday fun with shofar-making activities this week. The Hebrew Discovery Center holds a Shofar Factory Party on Sunday for kids ages 5 and up, while Calabasas Shul holds a shofar-making workshop at the local Albertsons today.HDC: Sept. 5, Noon. $7 (per child, include slice of pizza and refreshments). (818) 348-4432. Calabasas Shul: Sept. 6, 5-6:30 p.m. $5 (per shofar). (818) 591-7485.

Tuesday

The Mexican Jewish community isn’t one that gets much ofa spotlight, but for filmmaker Guita Shyfter, it made sense to focus on her ownroots and community. “Like a Bride” (“Novia Que Te Vea”) is the result. Thefilm’s uncommon subject matter is made more unique by its treatment: the storyof two women friends coming of age in 1960s Mexico City is told primarilythrough dialogue in Ladino and Spanish, with some Hebrew and Yiddish, as well.It is newly released on DVD. $17.96. www.amazon.com

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Wednesday

Klezmer goes upbeat in the latest CD by Yiddishe Cup,”Meshugeneh Mambo.” Six parody tracks pay tribute to klezmer comedian MickeyKatz, with the rest offering up original or reworked “neo-Borscht Belt klezmercomedy” tunes, and the titles say it all: “K’nock Around the Clock,” “I Am A Manof Constant Blessings” and “Second Avenue Square Dance.” $15. www.yiddishecup.com .

Thursday

Sports nuts despair not. With the close of this summer’s Olympic Games also comes the opening of “Game Face: What Does a Female Athlete Look Like?” at USC Fisher Gallery. The exhibition features photographs of women from the 1890s to today participating in sports from hunting to ping-pong to soccer. Creator Jane Gottesman has compiled images from myriad sources, including the Associated Press and various renown photographers including Ansel Adams, Robert Mapplethorpe, April Saul and Annie Leibowitz.Runs through Oct. 30. Noon-5 p.m. (Tues.-Sat.). Harris Hall, 823 Exposition Blvd., Los Angeles. (213) 740-4561.

Friday

The Nuart goes behind the music tonight, presenting the L.A. premiere of “End of the Century,” a documentary about the seminal punk rock band, The Ramones. From their interpersonal disputes to their struggles for fame, the doc takes a hard look at the hard-living band that arguably failed to achieve the recognition they deserved until long after they’d split.11272 Santa Monica Blvd., Los Angeles. (310) 281-8223.

Evolution of Reform Judaism Progressing


At Temple Congregation Ohabei Shalom in Nashville, Tenn., congregants newly trained in the ancient skill of shofar blowing sounded the ceremonial ram’s horn for the first time this past Rosh Hashanah. It was the first time a lay member of the 150-year-old synagogue had blown the shofar.

“It was quite a pivotal moment” for the 800-family congregation, said its rabbi, Mark Schiftan.

Deeply rooted in classical Reform Judaism, the temple’s services until recently were marked by choirs and English-only prayer. This Reform movement charter synagogue is undergoing upheaval, and it is not alone.

A journey toward religious tradition, accompanied by musical innovation, is reshaping many of the more than 920 member synagogues of the Reform movement. The change is not new, but it marks a continuing evolution for the movement, which just officially changed its name to the Union for Reform Judaism, shedding its old name, the Union of American Hebrew Congregations (UAHC).

The name change was one of several changes at the group’s 67th biennial convention in Minneapolis last week. Many of those changes have come from on high.

The union’s president, Rabbi Eric Yoffie (see sidebar), signaled a historic shift in North America’s largest liberal Jewish denomination at its 1999 biennial, with a worship initiative urging synagogues to use more Hebrew in prayer and reassess communal worship. His call came after a statement of principles by the movement’s Central Conference of American Rabbis, which had met in Pittsburgh earlier that year and sought “renewed attention” to Jewish commandments or mitzvot.

Last week, Yoffie tried to nudge the movement even further, calling for Reform Jews to log online daily to a “Ten Minutes of Torah” Internet program. The Torah, he said during his Shabbat morning speech at the biennial, “is the engine that drives Jewish life.”

“Such a commitment would enable us to meet our Jewish obligation to make Jewish study a fixed occurrence,” Yoffie said. “And if the answer is, ‘I can’t find 10 minutes,’ let me suggest that we need to take a good look at our priorities.”

Yoffie is the first to admit that many of North America’s estimated 1.5 million Reform Jews may find the idea foreign. Since his initial calls four years ago, Reform Jewry has embraced more intensive religious study “conceptually” but not in practice, Yoffie said in an interview at the conference.

“There is a core, committed elite that is studying,” he said. “On the ground, results are strong in some areas, less strong in others.”

Rabbi Lawrence Hoffman, a professor of liturgy at the movement’s seminary in New York, the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR), said that when it comes to congregational worship, “Reform is all over the map.”

Hoffman spoke at a conference panel called, “Beyond the Worship Wars: Worship Change Four Years Later,” which examined how Reform congregations are responding to Yoffie’s 1999 calls. Change “is a process; everybody knows it takes seven to 10 years,” Hoffman said.

Exhortation to change has become a movement fixture. After World War II, the UAHC’s then-president, Rabbi Maurice Eisendrath, began moving Reform away from its classical roots. His successors, first Rabbi Alexander Schindler, then Yoffie, who took the helm in 1996, followed the path, with each one raising the bar further.

For many of the 4,500 movement leaders and activists who gathered in Minneapolis, change remains an article of faith. Daily and evening prayer sessions throughout the week echoed to crowds of dozens, with those praying donning yarmulkes and prayer shawls. The event also saw its first all-Hebrew prayer session.

The workshops on religious themes were crowded, too, including those on delivering a d’var Torah, or text-based teaching; learning to chant from the Torah; creating High Holiday liturgy; and experiencing a yoga minyan.

Some were not surprised by Yoffie’s renewed call for commitment, if only because it signaled another step in the movement’s evolution.

“Certainly the bar has been raised,” said Rabbi Joe Black of Congregation Albert in Albuquerque, N.M. “One of the things Rabbi Yoffie has done throughout his tenure is place Torah at the center of the Reform movement.”

However, Black said he and his 700-household congregation “haven’t necessarily responded to the call for more tradition — the call was a reflection of what was happening for many years.”

In his eight years at the 107-year-old synagogue, Black said he has seen a boom in adult education, with classes in Hebrew, prayer and Jewish history. Twice a month, the synagogue offers Shabbat Torah study, which alternates with two meditation sessions.

Many Reform rabbis and cantors in the movement lead services with a guitar — several even held a biennial workshop on music and prayer.

Black has produced several compact disks. He leads an informal, musical Shabbat service, which relies on a prayer book the congregation designed that transliterates the Hebrew and includes gender-neutral references to God. In addition, there is a monthly Friday night family Shabbat service, featuring a puppet show for children.

While 60 percent of the synagogue’s liturgy is now in Hebrew, he said, it also often runs a more formal service, with a choir and a sermon following the initial prayers, for those who prefer the old style.

A similar mix flavors the rituals at Nashville’s Temple Congregation Ohabei Shalom. Once a month, approximately 200 people typically gather there for “Blue Jean Shabbat,” featuring a five-piece band playing music by the likes of the renowned Debbie Friedman. The cantor, Bernard Gutcheon, strums guitar.

While about 40 percent of Ohabei Shalom’s services now contain Hebrew — using the “Gates of Prayer” book, which was published in 1975 and offers alternative Shabbat prayers — older members still attend more classical Reform services using the “Union Prayer Book,” first published in 1895.

The Albuquerque and Nashville temples are among those which have experimented with the movement’s new prayer book, “Mishkan Tefilah,” which is due to be published in 2005 for wider dissemination. The new prayer book includes prayers in Hebrew, with translations and transliterations, commentary on the prayers and source references, with music and songs throughout.

Beth Haverim, a 280-family congregation in Mahwah, N.J., is also experimenting with the new book. Beth Haverim’s Rabbi Joel Mosbacher said that while he believes the new prayer book’s inclusion of transliterated Hebrew prayers is a crutch, allowing people to avoid learning Hebrew, he found that prayer participation among his congregants has skyrocketed since its introduction.

“Even as we shift to the right, you have to acknowledge that people aren’t there yet with their knowledge base,” he said.

Like other congregations, Beth Haverim is trying to fill that gap, using about 60 percent Hebrew in its services, but offering adult education, such as Hebrew instruction, Friday night book reviews and an introduction to Judaism course that is popular in many Reform congregations. The course doubles as a refresher for Jews and a primer for non-Jewish members.

At the same time, Beth Haverim Cantor Barbra Lieberstein has created such services as a pop-infused rock Shabbat and has brought in a classically and jazz-trained pianist for the High Holidays.

Hoffman of HUC-JIR joked that in Reform worship, “the three most important things are music, music and music.”

In Reform spiritual life, Black said, “we’re moving from an emphasis on pediatric Judaism, where you drop your kids off at school, to lifelong learning.”

Despite all the signs of fervor at the biennial, Yoffie said he does not delude himself about what’s happening at the grass-roots level, because such summits largely draw the movement’s leadership.

At the same time, he said, “if you walk into the average Reform synagogue now as opposed to 10 years ago, you will see that worship is appreciably different. It’s more participatory, there’s more Hebrew.”

“Have we seen change?” he asked. “Yes. Are we done? We’re never done.”