Preparing for Judaism's holiest season Student cantor to lead Rosh Hashana prayers for first time tonight

September 20, 1998|By John Rivera | John Rivera,SUN STAFF

The Jewish High Holy Days, which begin today at sundown, are commonly called the Days of Awe.

That is the emotion that fills student cantor Lisa Doob as she prepares to lead a congregation in prayer for the first time during Judaism's holiest season.

Doob, a cantorial student at New York's Hebrew Union College, commutes to Baltimore each weekend to lead services at Reisterstown's Temple Emanuel, where she will sing in tonight's celebration of Rosh Hashana, the Jewish new year.

"I'm really struck with a sense of awe of the responsibility I have as a representative of an entire congregation, interceding on their behalf in prayer," said Doob, 22, a native of Winnipeg, Manitoba. "I think it will be very emotional, but it's part of my role not to be overcome. In fact, the cantor's responsibility is not to himself or herself, but to aid the congregation in its soul-searching.

"I don't have the leisure to be overcome. But it naturally will be very moving."

It is not unusual that Temple Emanuel, a Reform congregation, would have a woman as cantor. Women have been ordained for years as rabbis and cantors in Reform and Conservative Judaism. Women do not serve as cantors in the more traditional Orthodox Judaism.

Temple Emanuel is unusual in that it consistently employs a student cantor, who sings at the synagogue for a year or two, instead of engaging someone on a long-term contract. Any shortage of experience is offset by the enthusiasm and skill the students bring, said Rabbi Gustav Buchdahl of Temple Emanuel.

"It gives us a wonderful opportunity both to learn and to teach -- to learn from students who have just returned from Israel, because all of them do; and to teach them to translate what they learn in school in a congregational and communal setting," Buchdahl said.

Doob, the daughter of a mathematics professor, first began singing in her synagogue choir at age 10. She earned a degree in French language, literature and translation from the University of Manitoba, and it was during a year she spent in Southern France that she decided to pursue a religious vocation.

"At that point, I took stock. I went through a process of determining what I couldn't do without," she said. "One was to to sing, to be involved musically. And the other was to live a Jewish life. These are two focal points for my life.

"When I returned to Canada, I decided I would look at what avenues were available for me to be able to live my life this way, fully involved in Judaism religiously and culturally, and to be able to express that musically," she said. "And that path took me to Hebrew Union College."

The High Holy Days are the 10 days from Rosh Hashana to Yom Kippur, a period when Jews examine their lives and atone for any misdeeds between a person and God and between fellow humans.

Doob said her preparation for these High Holy Days has been both technical and spiritual.

"On the most surface level, I've been preparing music this summer," she said. "The volume of repertoire that there is on the High Holy Days is vast.

"In terms of mental preparation, certainly I'm looking at the liturgy and draw meaning from that. It being my responsibility to pray for others, I really want to have a deep sense of what I'm praying."

That's the right approach, said Baltimore's veteran cantors, one of whom recalled her first cantorial experiences.

"It was a combination of awe and being petrified," said Judith K. Rowland of the Baltimore Hebrew Congregation, of her first High Holy Day as a cantor at a small synagogue in Pearl River, N.Y. "Everyone comes on the High Holidays. You really are awe-struck by the enormity of the day."

Her advice? "You practice a lot and you work a lot. In the end, you rely on the fact that it's really between you and God," she said. "You rely on your faith. You lean on the fact that it's prayer and not performance."

As the scene of so many cantorial debuts, it is not surprising that the congregation at Temple Emanuel anticipates the High Holy Days, in Buchdahl's words, with "both excitement and anxiety."

But after spending a year studying in Israel, which is part of the sacred music program at Hebrew Union, the students come well-prepared.

"They've been able to teach and study with masters, they've been able to hone the instrument of their voices, because they are the emotional translators of the liturgy," Buchdahl said. "Their job is to touch the hearts and to open the hearts of the congregants."

A prime example of that is what is by consensus the emotional highlight of the High Holy Days, the Kol Nidre, a prayer that Doob will sing during the service for Yom Kippur, the Jewish day of atonement, in 10 days.

"The prayer itself, which is written in Aramaic, is not a terribly inspiring text. It's essentially a legal document," Doob said.

"However, the melody, which has been used I believe since the 19th century, is a very moving melody," she said.

Doob, said she expects her first Kol Nidre to be an emotional catharsis.

"What makes the prayer so moving is the energy and emotion and the feeling," she said. "It's a day of reckoning. It's a day where you look at what you've done over the past year and ask for forgiveness. All of the emotion that's involved in that is contained in that prayer."

Pub Date: 9/20/98

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