Navonim - The Ramblings of Garnel Ironheart

Navonim - The Ramblings of Garnel Ironheart
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Sunday, 12 October 2008

Does the Tune Matter

My father has, for as long as I can remember, been a big fan of chazzanus. Some of my most annoying memories of childhood are the mornings he would play tapes of various famous chazzanim after opening my bedroom door to force me out of bed. I can't count how many times I would take out his chaazanus tapes from the car radio when I was borrowing the vehicle so I could flip to the rock station. I don't like chazzanus.
Naturally, God has a sense of humour about such things. As a result, I've been leading services in various shuls on various occasions since I was bar mitzvah'd. It doesn't seem to matter where I go. If I become a regular in any particular place, within a week or so I'm asked to go up to the shtender. Is there a tatoo on my forehead that I can't see that says "Pick this guy"?
One of the lessons my father taught me (several times because each time I did my best not to listen) was that a proper chazzan doesn't invent tunes. Rather each important prayer has its own traditional melody and the proper chazzan recites that nigun. People who go up and invent their own tunes while warbling loudly just show that they have no idea what real chazzanus is.
(Having said that, did you know that "Paint It Black" by the Rolling Stones is a great nigun that can be used for K'el Adon, Adon Olam, Lecha Dodi....)
So, for the last two years I've been recruited to lead services on Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur at the local Jewish Old Age Home. Knowing that I didn't know most of the requisite tunes (I could sing along to Kol Nidre but there was no way I knew how to do it on my own), I searched the web until I could collect enough MP3's to listen to in the car so I could perform competently.
My problem is that I'm not good at picking up tunes. I'm not tone deaf, just attention deficient so I often have to listen to a tune several dozen times in order to pick it up.
This year, in addition to everything else, I was also tasked to do Ne'ilah. Now I really had no idea what the nigunim for Ne'ilah are because by that time on Yom Kippur my brain is in active ketosis and not forming very many memories. So I downloaded more MP3's and feverishly listened to them over and over again. Leading my kids to remark: "You hate chazzanus Abba. Why are you listening to it in the car?"
In the end, some of the tunes stuck but most didn't. As a result, I muddled through as best as I could, warbling ignorantly to fill in my knowledge gaps. And (at least to my face) my "performance" was well received.
To be kind, this is not a crowd that knows any chazzanus. One year I sang Adon Olam to the theme from Star Wars and one guy commented: "Wow! I didn't know the Jews invented this one too!" So for them not to realize I'd bandly bungled most of Ne'ilah isn't a surprise but when I tried to explain that, in fact, I had gotten most of the tunes wrong, they shrugged and said: Who cares?
And now I'm thinking: Do the tunes matter? If you're not in a crowd that wants to hear chazzanus a very specific way, does it matter if you just make up or borrow tunes as you go along?
Some might say it does. After all, no one wants to hear Kol Nidre to the tune of "Scarborough Fair" by Simon & Garfunkel but they also don't care if Slach Na is done like "No More Tears" by Ozzy Ozborne. (No kidding, it's a stretch but definitely do-able. Don't try it at home. I'm a profession nudnik)
So do tunes matter? And if they matter for some prayers and not others, where's the dividing line? When does it really make a difference?

5 comments:

mother in israel said...

My husband always complains about chazanim who don't know the nusach of neilah. He's not talking about modern songs, but kaddish that sounds like tefillat geshem.

Do you know that until today I thought you never updated your blog?

Garnel Ironheart said...

It was only a two week vacation! Really!

Nishma said...

Why not tell the truth? You wanted to have an excuse to torture you kids by playing chazzanus in the car and then having to listen to you practice. I guess it was all in the spirit of the period -- it should be for a kapara.

Rabbi Ben Hecht

Nishma said...

On a more serious note though (no pun intended), what niggun one uses should really only be determined with a consideration of what niggun will best bring about the purpose the tefillot. If new tunes work, then use new tunes. If old tunes work, use old tunes. The only question should be: what niggun would best effect the positive outcome of inspiring the klal in teshuva and tefilla.

Rabbi Ben Hecht

Dr Mike said...

I think it's the Stars Wars effect.

When "The Phantom Menace" came out, people hated Jar Jar Binks. George Lucas turned around and said: "These same adults loved Ewoks when there were 10 and watching the movie for the first time." We grew up and expected the movies to grow up with us but Lucas was still making movies for 10 year olds, just like the originals.

It's the same thing with tunes. Yes, there's no law that Kol Nidre has to be the tune it is but it just seems "wrong" when its done to another. It offends the fond childhood memories I have of the holidays.