October 17, 2019

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.