Sacred Traditions of Song: Emmanuel Synagogue

Music is an essential piece of the traditional conservative Jewish service. The entirety of the service is sung through by the congregation or the rabbi. Every scripture is sung and there is a special cantor that reads from the Torah. Each word in Hebrew is a different note, so the cantor sight reads the entire thing, because he is the one trained to do so. I sat in awe of the entire service. There was no outside music besides the natural vocality of the human voice. It felt so sacred I can hardly put into words the overwhelming feeling I was overcome with.

I did not record for this service, as it felt too obtrusive to the sense of sacred security the congregation collectively shared. There were several voices involved in the service, but no voice felt particularly concrete, meaning that it was necessary or not to the service. Each voice, except for the cantor and the rabbi, was introduced by way of volunteers and offering. The rabbi would ask people, during different parts of the singing service, to sing a passage and they would walk up to the front and sing through the Torah or passage given to them by the rabbi. They would then proceed to sing the Hebrew as accurately as possible. Once their section of verse was completed they would either sing another or step down and allow someone else to take over. The three hour, traditional service was never silent. The singing was constant.

The beginning of the service was started by a woman in the congregation, who seemed to have had training to be a rabbi. Everyone seemed to be appreciative of her beginning the service, as they were running behind. It began in the beginning of the Torah and went pretty far into the text. The traditional service being around 3 hours, meant they were able to cover a lot of scripture.

When the Torah was brought out, the congregation had a verse memorized to sing as the sacred text was brought down the center of the pews and kissed or touched by each person present, including myself. The voices at this point were loud and exclamatory. Before this point the voices seemed to lull into a pleasant tonal series of ambient sound. The congregation just seemed to know the notes of each Hebrew word by way of repetition and a sense of growing up with the material. My close friend, whom I was sitting next to, had not been to a service in quite some time, but he knew several verses just by memory. He said that since it is so long a service, the songs don’t get stuck in your head, but rather seem to just appear in the moment. He said some text readings feel more familiar than others depending on how it feels to sing. I thought this was particularly interesting, because this means that everyone will have a differing opinion about each verse and text based on how it feels in their vocal mechanism.

By Tessa McQueen

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