Out There: The shofar blowin' blues

The shofar blower can’t blame the reader of the notes, or even the rabbi. He can blame the shofar, but who’s going to believe that?

The shofar blowin’ blues (photo credit: PEPE FAINBERG)
The shofar blowin’ blues
(photo credit: PEPE FAINBERG)
Few are the moments during the synagogue- going year as widely anticipated and as pregnant with expectation as the first blowing of the shofar on that first day of Rosh Hashana.
The shul is full as all the kids are ushered in for the big moment. Some are on their fathers’ shoulders to see the man blowing the shofar, others in their mothers’ arms. Psalm 47 is recited seven times, adding to the dramatic impact.
“All nations clap your hands, praise God with shouts of joy.”
Ornery kids are unceremoniously hushed.
The shofar blower generally has his head covered with his tallit, adding to the sanctity of the moment, and the gentleman reading out the notes to be blown – tekia, shevarim-terua, tekia – does it in a soft voice that nonetheless carries because of the silence in the room.
And then the shofar is sounded.
That dramatic, numinous mood preceding the blowing of the shofar happens to be one of my favorite childhood Rosh Hashana memories.
But I also remember – with somewhat of a cringe – what sometimes happened afterward, something much less numinous: A shofar blower who, nebech, simply could not rise to the occasion.
EVERY SYNAGOGUE-goer has experienced this. The scene is set, everything is in place, all eyes are on the bima, waiting, anticipating, and then – come about the fourth or fifth tekia – disaster strikes.
Rather than a stirring sound emanating from the shofar, there comes a flub: A weak, broken kvetch of a sound that causes the congregants to close their eyes not out of kavana, not out of deep spiritual concentration, but simply because the whole scene is just too painful to watch.
The eager faces of the kids fall despondent as the shofar sounds more like a door screeching in the distance than a trumpet blast. Grown men shuffle their feet in discomfort. Somewhere, an adolescent stifles a giggle. The shofar blower puffs and pants and blows, but the ram’s horn stubbornly refuses to bleat.
It’s the Rosh Hashana train wreck. It’s like watching a center fielder drop a high fly ball. All eyes are on the player and – boom – he makes an error. And this is an uncomfortable error to make, because it can’t be blamed on someone else. The shofar blower can’t blame the reader of the notes, or even the rabbi. He can blame the shofar, but who’s going to believe that? It’s an error out there for all to see. All year the congregation waits for this moment of spirituality, and then it’s lost. There’s always tomorrow, the second day of Rosh Hashana, but the second day is different.
Beyond the lost spirituality, this also causes something else: The shofar blower, poor soul, will feature prominently in the post-shul conversations and at the festive meals following services, as families and friends gather and – inevitably – critique the six-hour service they just sat through.
THERE IS something rather ironic about the post-service synagogue critique. Here we are, on one of the holiest days of the year, after having just pleaded for Divine mercy, after having just asked God to temper the harshness of His decree, coming home and – around apples dipped in honey for a sweet new year – bitterly judging the main participants in the just completed synagogue service.
And it’s not only, or even especially, the shofar blower.
I don’t envy rabbis at this time of year, especially not pulpit rabbis in the US. On Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, their speeches are not simply short religious homilies, but are expected to be major addresses that at once must move and entertain, touch on ancient sources yet remain contemporary, uplift and educate.
That’s a tough row to hoe. And if the anticipation is not met, if the High Holy Day speech is not that special cross between Churchill and Rashi, between Martin Luther King Jr. and Maimonides, then the criticism around the meal can be blistering.
In Israel, where the whole synagogue setting is far less formal and the rabbi’s Rosh Hashana drasha not necessarily viewed as a keynote address, the barbs at mealtime are less aimed at his direction.
Which doesn’t mean there are no barbs. There are, but they are aimed at the lay cantors, the guys from down the street who lead different parts of the services.
The guy who davened shaharit (led the morning services) sang too soft, the guy who led the musaf prayer sang too loud. This guy went too fast, that guy used too many tunes and went too slow. No, it is not easy being a key actor in the Rosh Hashana services, because by volunteering to do so you’re opening yourself up to withering criticism by a jury of your peers.
BUT BACK to the shofar blower. I remember as a boy the after-shul conversation on Rosh Hashana often being about why our synagogue couldn’t just find a guy able to consistently and properly blow the ram’s horn.
“I mean, how difficult can it be?” was the common complaint.
Truth is, it is very difficult. Getting the shofar to pour out a powerful sound is an art. And to find a shofar blower who can emit a stirring sound – as strong at the beginning of the note as it is at the end; pure; loud; deep; meeting the stringent halachic requirements for the length of each note – is not something to take for granted.
With the shofar blowing experiences from Denver in our minds, my father and I had relatively low expectations some 30 years ago when – during a sabbatical year my parents spent in Jerusalem – we attended services at a local shul in the Kiryat Moshe neighborhood.
The pool of able shofar blowers in Denver was rather shallow. But this was Jerusalem, where the shofarot not only looked downright biblical – long and majestically curved – but where you had people well trained in the art of actually blowing them, folks who were to the ram’s horn what Wynton Marsalis is to the trumpet.
The pool here was deep.
The long awaited moment came.
“Tekia,” the reader read, and the shofar blower let out a long, straight blast just as it was meant to be played. Shevarim-terua was sounded – three short blasts followed by a nine-note trill – and, indeed, it was as if the shofar first wailed, and then led the charges into battle.
And the final long tekia, the tekia-gedola, was one sustained, prolonged, smooth note that left people looking at their watches, wondering how the blower could hold his breath for so long. (“Funny, he doesn’t look like a synchronized swimmer.”) These were rich, strong, pure sounds. These were spiritual sounds.
“Jesus!” my dad exclaimed to me, breaking the silence, awed by the performance. “Now there’s a guy who can blow the shofar!” “Sure can,” I whispered back, suddenly worried about the post-synagogue meals, and what those around us were going to say about the rather curious way the visiting American chose to praise their gifted blower of the shofar.
■ A collection of the writer’s “Out There” columns, French Fries in Pita, is now available at www.herbkeinon.com and at www.amazon.com.