October 22, 2019

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.