Learning Trope

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Resources for Learning Trope